Weekend Wonk: An Oil Man’s Case for Climate Concern

March 2, 2012

HT to Andy Revkin for this interview, which I found on dot earth, where Andy expands on the discussion of  this week’s ocean acidification study in Science (see the post Oceans Acidifying at Faster Rate than in Past 300  Million Years) – and adds useful threads for further reading.

The paper grew out of a big 2010 workshop on “Paleo-ocean acidification and carbon cycle perturbation events” — junctures in earth history in the last several hundred million years when some great disturbance — such as spasms of volcanic activity — set off a big buildup of carbon in the atmosphere and oceans, driving climate change and pushing surface ocean waters toward the acid side of the pH scale. Click here for the agenda and presentations that built the foundation for the new paper.

There’s plenty of basic background on the new study in a news releases from Columbia University, available as a pdf here.

Watching the video set me to searching for a sediment core image I had posted some time ago – tracking the changes in benthic critters during the most oft-cited historical analog to our current predicament – the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum.  I quoted paleo expert Lee Kump:

The PETM bears some striking resemblances to the human-caused climate change unfolding today. Most notably, the culprit
behind it was a massive injection of heat-trapping greenhousegases into the atmosphere and oceans, comparable in volume to
what our persistent burning of fossil fuels could deliver in coming centuries….. New answers provide sobering clarity. They suggest the consequences of the planet’s last great global warming paled in comparison to what lies ahead, and they add new support for predictions that humanity will suffer if our course remains unaltered.

The PETM had a big impact on life in the oceans, as evidenced by this sediment core.

According to Kump:

..Today investigators think the PETM unfolded something like this: As is true of our current climate crisis, the PETM began, in a sense, with the burning of fossil fuels.

At the time the supercontinent Pangaea was in the final stages of breaking up, and the earth’s crust was ripping apart, forming the northeastern Atlantic Ocean.

As a result, huge volumes of molten rock and intense heat rose up through the landmass that encompassed Europe and Greenland, baking carbon-rich sediments and perhaps even some coal and oil near the surface. The baking sediments, in turn, released large doses of two strong greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane.

Judging by the enormous volume of the eruptions, the volcanoes probably accounted for an initial buildup of greenhouse gases on the order of a few hundred petagrams of carbon, enough to raise global temperature by a couple of degrees. But most analyses, including ours, suggest it took something more to propel the PETM to its hottest point.

When the gas releases began, the oceans absorbed much of the CO2 (and the methane later converted to CO2). This natural carbon sequestration helped to offset warming at first. Eventually, though, so much of the gas seeped into the deep ocean that it created a surplus of carbonic acid, a process known as acidification.

Moreover, as the deep sea warmed, its oxygen content dwindled(warmer water cannot hold as much of this life-sustaininggas as cold water can). These changes spelled disaster for certain microscopic organisms called foraminifera, which lived on the sea floor and within its sediments. (the whitish colored sediment at the bottom of the core here – PS) The fossil record reveals their inability to cope: 30 to 50 percent of those species went extinct.

The message of the graph, and the core, are clear. We are changing the planet at a rate unprecedented outside of the most severe convulsions the planet has seen in 4 billion years of history. We do not know what the results will be.

I don’t think I want my children and grandchildren to find out.


Yesterday’s post sparked a lively round of the usual denialist talking points. One in particular seemed to stand out as a typically “sciencey” example, and typical of the denialist approach – inviting us to reason with our “common sense” from a  point of gross ignorance.

The oceans contain 50x as much CO2 dissolved in them as exists in the atmosphere, so it is impossible that anthropogenic atmospheric CO2 emissions can much affect dissolved CO2 levels, and hence pH, in the deep oceans.

Hewing to my standard approach, I wrote to a lead author of the Ocean Acidity study, Barbel Honisch, from Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. She replied:

It is correct that the ocean contain about 50 times more Carbon than the atmosphere, but this carbon is not present in the form of CO2, which makes up only ~1% of the total. So any addition of CO2 to that small fraction does have an effect on the ocean. When CO2 reacts with water to form the many other dissolved carbon species (carbonic acid, bicarbonate ions and carbonate ions), crucially also H+ ions are produced and it is those ions that increase seawater acidity. Over the last couple of decades the decrease in seawater pH (=increase in acidity) has been measured at ocean science stations e.g. on Hawaii (http://hahana.soest.hawaii.edu/hot/trends/trends.html) and Bermuda (http://www.bios.edu/Labs/co2lab/research/IntDecVar_OCC.html), and the drop in pH is as obvious as the increase in CO2 measured in the atmosphere over the past 50 years (http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/)

While Honisch’s research shows we are acidifying the oceans much more rapidly than normal, it’s worth reviewing the graphic below, which compares the rate of temperature rise now, with the PETM event.

4 Responses to “Weekend Wonk: An Oil Man’s Case for Climate Concern”

  1. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    Scary: we are changing the atmosphere and oceans way faster than a massive extinction event. Surely we must at least consider the possibility that it could happen again.

  2. […] Weekend Wonk: An Oil Man’s Case for Climate Concern (climatecrocks.com) […]

  3. Martin Lack Says:

    As many may know by now, I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to a meeting in the Palace of Westminster on 22 February at which MIT Professor Richard Lindzen was the guest speaker.

    I cannot tell you how much I regret that “…as a result of frustration with what I saw as Lindzen’s failure to explain the relevance of palaeoclimatology to our understanding of the way in which the Earth regulates its temperature. This is because it resulted in me not getting to ask the question I had prepared, the first part of which I used more recently in an exchange with some entity known as Punksta, as follows: Concern over anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is based on the study of palaeoclimatology, not on computer modelling. However, models have helped to predict the atmospheric response to greenhouse gas emissions; and any uncertainties in model predictions have been due to uncertainties in emissions projections. I cannot recommend highly enough that people read the entire thread from which this quote is extracted – it is a salutory lesson in the dangers of cognitive dissonance (a.k.a willful blindness). It really does make me wonder what Lindzen would have said.

    Sadly, he has not answered any of my questions but, I am fairly confident that ‘Lindzengate’ (as I am now calling it) has not really started yet.

    More on this from soon after 1300 GMT on Sunday 4 March 2012 at:

    • Martin Lack Says:

      I’m sorry, I messed up the html a bit there: Apart from ‘Lindzengate’ the only bit in italics should be the hyperlinked text.

      Also, please delete “… in line 1 of para 2. Then delete this. Thanks in anticipation…

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