As the wheels start to fall off the global warming bandwagon, activists have been hard at work growing a new threat to take its place in their relentless fight to end our use of inexpensive, reliable fossil fuels: so-called ‘ocean acidification.’ But like Al Gore’s climate change crusade, ocean acidification fears are irrational. Nature is fully able to cope with any possible changes we could be causing in the ocean’s pH levels. The oceans have never been acidic and the likelihood that they ever will be, no matter how much carbon dioxide we release into the air, is essentially nil. 

This has not stopped the ocean acidification movement. Last month’s Virtual Oceans Dialogue, organized by the World Economic Forum and Friends of Ocean Action, saw the convening of first ever “completely virtual global conference for ocean action.” Among the topics addressed by the more than 1,300 participants from over 90 different countries was a ‘Deep Dive’ session on Ocean Acidification and Climate-Ocean Impacts. As is so often the case with environmental causes these day, the UK-based Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) a co-host of the ‘Deep Dive’ acidification session, tells us on their YouTube site that the Dialogues, the livestreamed sessions which reached over 780,000 views, have “drawn global attention to the ocean as a solution and how it should comprise an integral part of both the response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.” And, yes, PML tells us:

“Ocean acidification and other climate-related ocean stressors have widespread impacts on marine ecosystems which impact human wellbeing.

PML’s first patron is Canadian filmmaker (Terminator, Terminator 2, etc.) and environmentalist James Cameron.

Three days after the Dialogues wrapped up, on the occasion of World Oceans Day (June 8th), UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission organized the first Virtual Ocean Literacy Summit. There, we were told, 

“Ocean experts, sports and business people, high-level government representatives, and artists from across the globe exchanged ideas, experiences and insights on the future of Ocean Literacy in the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).”  

Yup, the UN are devoting the next ten years to ocean sciences. And a big part of this is apparently going to be the phantom threat of ocean acidification:

“’While the ocean is suffering from climate change – including ocean acidification, sea rise level, and deoxygenation – the Decade will provide a common framework to ensure that science can fully support countries’ actions to sustainably manage marine ecosystems. Ocean science should remain at the heart of the education system while our ocean is being jeopardized,’ stated Peter Thomson, UN Special Envoy for the ocean.”

Indeed, to make sure no one misses the connection, on July 20, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation put out the video, Ocean Acidification – United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. In the video, Dr. Jan Newton, Co-chair of the international Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON), said:

“[ocean acidification] is happening because our atmosphere is diffusing into the ocean and it’s changing the chemistry in measurable ways… As the status of the ocean acidification increases, we’re going to start to see effects on organisms that people rely on for food…Eight years ago, it [GOA-ON] was just an idea and now we’ve got 700 scientists from 100 nations.”

And this is just the tip of the ocean acidification iceberg. The following figure shows how the movement now involves many interrelated government and other agencies. It looks like global warming’s evil twin will soon be as serious a threat to our way of life as the climate scare eventually became.

The public needs to understand that all this is based on propaganda. Global warming scaremongers have falsely forecast that additional carbon dioxide (CO2) could lower the pH of the oceans until they become acidic (i.e., a pH less than 7), killing off ocean life. To make the oceans acidic from CO2 emissions would require an impossible ten-fold decrease in the alkalinity of surface waters. This is physically and chemical impossible. 

Biologist Jim Steele of the CO2 Coalition and former Research Director of San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada’s Field Campus has proven how our oceans are benefitting enormously by the increase in CO2 which man’s industrialization has produced. Steele said: 

“Even if atmospheric CO2 concentrations triple from today’s four percent of one percent, which would take about 600 years, today’s surface pH of 8.2 would plateau at 7.8, still well above neutral 7.”

Ocean health has improved as a result of greater CO2, as it feeds phytoplankton that stimulates the ocean’s food chain. CO2 allows phytoplankton such as algae, bacteria, and seaweed to feed the rest of the open ocean food chain. As CO2 moves through this food web, much of it sinks or is transported away from the surface. 

Steele further explains,

“A high surface pH allows the ocean to store 50-times more CO2 than the atmosphere. Digestion of carbon at lower depths allows for storage there for centuries. Periodic upwelling recycles carbon and nutrients from deep ocean waters to sunlit surface waters.” 

In fact, upwelling injects far more ancient CO2 into surface waters than diffuses there from the atmosphere. Upwelling at first lowers surface pH, but then stimulates photosynthesis, which raises surface pH. It is a necessary process to generate bursts of life that sustain many ocean life forms.

When a CO2 molecule enters ocean water, it creates a bicarbonate ion plus a hydrogen ion, resulting in a slight decrease in pH. However, photosynthesis requires CO2. So marine organisms convert bicarbonate and hydrogen ions into usable CO2, and pH rises again. Contrary to popular claims that rising CO2 leads to shell disintegration, slightly lower pH does not stop marine organisms from using carbonate ions in building their shells.

The concentration of atmospheric CO2 is governed by the balance between stored carbon and CO2 released back to the atmosphere. On land, carbon is continuously stored as organic material in living and dead organisms, with some carbon eventually buried in sediments. During the last major glaciation, expanding glaciers destroyed much of the northern hemisphere’s forests and reduced the earth’s ability to store terrestrial carbon. Just as deforestation does today, that loss of forests should have increased atmospheric CO2. Instead, atmospheric CO2 decreased! It appears that the missing CO2 was stored in the ocean.

Steele concluded:

“Across the Earth’s upwelling regions, ocean surface pH is primarily affected by the upwelling of ancient stored carbon, rather than human activities.”

The ocean surface is seldom in equilibrium with the atmosphere. Recent upwelling of subsurface carbon typically raises surface concentrations of CO2 to 1000 ppm and temporarily lowers surface pH. Upwelling of old carbon and other nutrients then stimulates photosynthesis in phytoplankton and sea grasses, which then raises pH.

It is now estimated that 90% of the difference in pH between surface waters and deeper waters results from downward movement of ocean life. When transformed into organic matter, CO2 can be rapidly exported downwards. For example, anchovy and sardine fecal pellets sink 780 meters in a day. Tiny diatoms, which account for half of the ocean’s photosynthesis, are believed to sink at rates over 500 meters per day because of their dense silica shells.

Upwelling is a vital dynamic that brings carbon and nutrients, otherwise sequestered in the ocean’s depths, back to the surface. Although there may be negative consequences of low-pH and low-oxygen upwelled waters, without upwelling of low-pH waters, global marine productivity would be greatly reduced.

In the political arena of climate change, crucial factors are misleadingly ignored by those claiming that rising CO2 leads to shell disintegration. First, shells of living organisms are protected by organic tissues that insulate the shells from changes in ocean chemistry. Mollusk shells are typically covered by a periostracum. This allows mollusks to thrive near low pH volcanic vents, or in acidic freshwater, or when buried in low pH sediments. Coral skeletons are protected by their layer of living coral polyps. When shell-forming organisms die they lose that layer of protective tissue and their shells or skeletons may indeed dissolve. However, dissolution also releases carbonate ions, which buffers the surrounding waters and inhibits any further change in pH.

Clearly, lower pH does not stop ocean organisms from converting bicarbonate ions into shell-building carbonate ions. 

And what about when atmospheric CO2 levels were many times higher in the past than today? Did marine organisms stop producing shells? Of course not. Massive deposits of calcium carbonate in fossilized shells across the world clearly shows that. 

So, what are the bottom-line, take home messages to share? 

  • The oceans will not become acidic 
  • CO2 enriches all life in the ocean  
  • There is no evidence to suggest that the oceans are becoming less suitable for marine life due to rising atmospheric CO2.

It is not just Steele who scoffs at the ocean acidification alarm. Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts, a report from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, states:

“the findings of hundreds of peer-reviewed research analyses, suggests a much better future is in store for Earth’s aquatic life [than that forecast by the UN IPCC]. Many laboratory and field studies demonstrate growth and developmental improvements in response to higher temperatures and reduced water pH levels. Other research illustrates the capability of coral and other marine and freshwater species to tolerate and adapt to the rising temperature and pH decline of the planet’s water bodies. When these observations are considered, the pessimistic projections of IPCC give way to considerable optimism with respect to the future of the planet’s marine life.”

So, nothing to see here, folks. Time to focus on problems we know to be real.

Note: Certain facts in this article have been excerpted from the paper Ocean Health Is There An Acidification Problem with permission of the author Jim Steele and the publisher the CO2 Coalition.