I must go down to the sea again, spelt H2CO3!

Starting to feel like a long way from John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever.

The call of the sea.

One of my all-time favourite poems.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Why do I start this piece with that poem?

Well, read this,

Carbonic acid is a weak acid that is created when carbon dioxide (CO2) is dissolved in water (H2O), resulting in the chemical formula H2CO3. When the acid dissociates, or gives up a hydrogen ion, the resulting molecule is called a bicarbonate ion. Carbonic acid appears frequently in the natural world. It can be found in sodas, champagne, and blood. The acid even appears in rain.

But like so many things in nature, it’s all about balance.

A week ago, the 2nd March, Patrice Ayme gave me permission to reproduce an essay of his The collapse of the biosphere.  In that essay he wrote,

Besides, it’s not all about “climate change”. Half of the CO2 is presently dissolving in the oceans, so a rise of two degrees Celsius means extremely acid oceans (CO2 turns into carbonic acid after it reacts with water). At the present rate of acidification, marine life will dissolve big time by 2100. That’s how a lot of the oxygen is produced, by photosynthesizing unicellular animals, with acid sensitive skeletons. Atmospheric poisoning deniers do not want just to warm us up.

On that same day of March 2nd, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism published an item that reinforced what Patrice wrote.  Yves very kindly gave me permission to republish her Post in full, as follows:

Current Rate of Ocean Acidification Worst in 300 Million Years

Science has published a troubling but not entirely surprising article on the fact that the oceans are acidifying at the fastest rate in 300 million years. Actually, it could be the fastest rate over an even longer time period, but we can only go back with any degree of accuracy for 300 million years

We first wrote about this issue in early 2007, and this section, which quoted Stormy from Angry Bear, will help bring readers up to speed:

….there are side effects to our love affair with CO2 that are not often mentioned. In fact, whether the earth cools or warms is absolutely irrelevant to these effects. I repeat: Absolutely irrelevant.

One of the most startling effects is the acidification of the oceans. Since 1750, the oceans have become increasingly acidic. In the oceans, CO2 forms carbonic acid, a serious threat to the base of the food chain, especially on shellfish of all sizes. Carbonic acid dissolves calcium carbonate, an essential component of any life form with an exoskeleton. In short, all life forms with an exoskeleton are threatened: shell fish, an important part of the food chain for many fish; coral reefs, the habitat of many species of fish….

The formation of carbonic acid does not depend upon temperature. Whether the oceans warm or cool is irrelevant. Of concern only is the amount of CO2 that enters the oceans.

Fast forward to today. Consider the scope of the paper in Science, per a very good discussion in ars technica:

A new paper in Science examines the geologic record for context relating to ocean acidification…The research group (twenty-one scientists from nearly as many different universities) reviewed the evidence from past known or suspected intervals of ocean acidification…They find that the current rate of ocean acidification puts us on a track that, if continued, would likely be unprecedented in last 300 million years.

There is an important driver of this process that this overview mentions only in passing further on, and it’s useful to have it in mind when you review the discussion of the historical record:ocean acidification depends primarily on the rate of atmospheric CO2 increases, not the absolute concentration. Look at how attenuated the rate of past CO2 changes was in the past versus the speed now:

The first period the researchers looked at was the end of the last ice age, starting around 18,000 years ago. Over a period of about 6,000 years, atmospheric CO2 levels increased by 30 percent, a change of roughly 75 ppm. (For reference, atmospheric CO2 has gone up by about the same amount over the past 50 years.) Over that 6,000 year time period, surface ocean pH dropped by approximately 0.15 units. That comes out to about 0.002 units per century. Our current rate is over 0.1 units per century—two orders of magnitude greater, which lines up well with a model estimate we covered recently.

The last deglaciation did not trigger a mass extinction, but it did cause changes in some species…

During the Pliocene warm period, about 3 million years ago, atmospheric CO2 was about the same as today, but pH was only 0.06 to 0.11 units lower than preindustrial conditions. This is because the event played out over 320,000 years or so. We see species migration in the fossil record in response to the warming planet, but not ill effects on calcifiers…

Next, the researchers turned their focus to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM), which occurred 56 million years ago. Global temperature increased about 6°C over 20,000 years due to an abrupt release of carbon to the atmosphere (though this was not as abrupt as current emissions). The PETM saw the largest extinction of deep-sea foraminifera of the last 75 million years, and was one of the four biggest coral reef disasters of the last 300 million years…

The group also examined the several mass extinctions that defined the Mesozoic—the age of dinosaurs. The boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic included a large increase in atmospheric CO2 (adding as much as 1,300 to 2,400 ppm) over a relatively short period of time, perhaps just 20,000 years. The authors write, “A calcification crisis amongst hypercalcifying taxa is inferred for this period, with reefs and scleractinian corals experiencing a near-total collapse.” Again, though, it’s unclear how much of the catastrophe can be blamed on acidification rather than warming.

Finally, we come the big one—The Great Dying. The Permian-Triassic mass extinction (about 252 million years ago) wiped out around 96 percent of marine species. Still, the rate of CO2 released to the atmosphere that drove the dangerous climate change was 10-100 times slower than current emissions…

In the end, the researchers conclude that the PETM, Triassic-Jurassic boundary, and Permian-Triassic boundary are the closest analogs to the modern day, at least as far as acidification is concerned. Due to the poor ocean chemistry data for the latter two, the PETM is the best event for us to compare current conditions. It’s still not perfect—the rate of CO2 increase was slower than today…

The authors conclude, “[T]he current rate of (mainly fossil fuel) CO2 release stands out as capable of driving a combination and magnitude of ocean geochemical changes potentially unparalleled in at least the last ~300 [million years] of Earth history, raising the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.”

Translation: “We’re probably fucked, but the data is so far outside of historical parameters, we can’t say anything with a high degree of certainty.”

Worth protecting, worth saving, worth caring about!

10 thoughts on “I must go down to the sea again, spelt H2CO3!

  1. Totally totally totally off-topic – sorry, but it’s right in the front of my brain. I’m writing to say thank you. I’ve spent a little time clicking here and there on your blog, and noticing your Versatile Blogger Award, clicked to see what it was about (who doesn’t like to explore awards?). That’s how I discovered 4amWriter. I follow that now. I really like it, Paul. You’re attracting (and winning awards from) some really (fill in your favorite affirmative qualifier) people. You’re introducing me to your wonderful community. It’s like my name is on the list, and the bouncer ushers me in.

    Thank you, Paul. “Hi” to Jean. “Woof” to the pack. “Meow” to the pride.


  2. If more people read this kind of thing they might understand why I am so angry with the Merchants of Doubt (Singer, Lindzen, Michaels, Spencer, Curry…) I don’t wan them to go to their graves thinking they are right; I want them to admit they were wrong before they go. In the Middle Ages punishments for heresy were much more severe…

    Regular LfD readers may be familiar with this post of mine but new readers over 40 yrs of age may enjoy this trip down memory lane: http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/all-things-are-connected/

    Is the F-word at the end meant to be in full view?


  3. Excellent post, Paul!
    Thorough with the latest on acidification.

    …But even worse can be said… And I may as well say it first.

    The CO2 now stuffed in the ocean will come out. So basically we can double all the ppm numbers, in the fullness of time…
    Another point; the methane gun. In case of chain reaction methane eruption, the sky will darken, tsunamis wreck the land, and giant fuel air explosions worth of thermonuclear devices roil the vastness…

    In the her blog the august Judith Curry was haughtily pontificating that “climate alarmists have lost prestige”… No doubt that is because the situation is not catastrophic enough, yet… Just wait…


    1. Thanks Patrice, Yes these are potentially challenging times and all one can hope for is that the tide of public opinion will rise a damn sight quicker than the ocean tides.

      Can you point me to references re the chain reaction methane eruption process that I may read up about? P.


      1. Ah, Paul, the reference problem…

        Let me use the occasion to mention it.

        More and more people are learning to hyperlink in the WWW, but not within their brains… Some of the skeptics out there have found a cute method.

        Philosopher: 1+ 1 = 2.
        Skeptic: what’s the reference?

        I prefer the reasoning approach. In other words, I have strictly no reference for chain reaction methane explosion, but I am certain that a major methane eruption would lead to detonation, and I have a reasoning to “prove” it. OK, maybe I should write it down…

        So much thinking, so little time.


    2. Hi Patrice,

      Sorry I have not commented on your blog. I did visit the post on aphorisms(?), in which you made many many interesting points. However, I would have to have made notes in order to comment on such an “information-rich environment”…. However, this is more manageable so, can you please explain (I think I know but clarification would probably benefit all readers) why, having caused ocean acidification, CO3 in the water eventually me converted into CO2 in the atmosphere?

      BTW all should note that, in attempting damage limitation, RSL may now have dug himself an even bigger hole


      1. Hi Martin! Please do not hesitate to find something to argue with in the all too rich environment!

        A lot of the CO2 just dissolves in the ocean (same with CH4 bubbling up from the sea floor, that was actually observed). Then, if the ocean gets shaken (wind0, and warms up a tiny bit, the CO2 comes out, as from a warmed up agitated soda can foam out. Apparently that is what is going on with the Antarctic ocean…


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