My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal: Coral reefs around the world are suffering badly from overfishing and various forms of pollution. Yet many experts argue that the greatest threat to them is the acidification of the oceans from the dissolving of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N. Veron, an Australian coral scientist, will be "nothing less than catastrophic.... What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."
This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called ocean acidification "the scariest environmental problem you've never heard of."
Sigourney Weaver, who narrated a film about the issue, said that "the scientists are freaked out." The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls it global warming's "equally evil twin."
But do the scientific data support such alarm? Last month scientists at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other authors published a study showing how much the pH level (measuring alkalinity versus acidity) varies naturally between parts of the ocean and at different times of the day, month and year.
"On both a monthly and annual scale, even the most stable open ocean sites see pH changes many times larger than the annual rate of acidification," say the authors of the study, adding that because good instruments to measure ocean pH have only recently been deployed, "this variation has been under-appreciated." Over coral reefs, the pH decline between dusk and dawn is almost half as much as the decrease in average pH expected over the next 100 years. The noise is greater than the signal.
Another recent study, by scientists from the U.K., Hawaii and Massachusetts, concluded that "marine and freshwater assemblages have always experienced variable pH conditions," and that "in many freshwater lakes, pH changes that are orders of magnitude greater than those projected for the 22nd-century oceans can occur over periods of hours."
This adds to other hints that the ocean-acidification problem may have been exaggerated. For a start, the ocean is alkaline and in no danger of becoming acid (despite headlines like that from Reuters in 2009: "Climate Change Turning Seas Acid"). If the average pH of the ocean drops to 7.8 from 8.1 by 2100 as predicted, it will still be well above seven, the neutral point where alkalinity becomes acidity.
The central concern is that lower pH will make it harder for corals, clams and other "calcifier" creatures to make calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. Yet this concern also may be overstated. Off Papua New Guinea and the Italian island of Ischia, where natural carbon-dioxide bubbles from volcanic vents make the sea less alkaline, and off the Yucatan, where underwater springs make seawater actually acidic, studies have shown that at least some kinds of calcifiers still thrive-at least as far down as pH 7.8.
In a recent experiment in the Mediterranean, reported in Nature Climate Change, corals and mollusks were transplanted to lower pH sites, where they proved "able to calcify and grow at even faster than normal rates when exposed to the high [carbon-dioxide] levels projected for the next 300 years." In any case, freshwater mussels thrive in Scottish rivers, where the pH is as low as five.
Laboratory experiments find that more marine creatures thrive than suffer when carbon dioxide lowers the pH level to 7.8. This is because the carbon dioxide dissolves mainly as bicarbonate, which many calcifiers use as raw material for carbonate.
Human beings have indeed placed marine ecosystems under terrible pressure, but the chief culprits are overfishing and pollution. By comparison, a very slow reduction in the alkalinity of the oceans, well within the range of natural variation, is a modest threat, and it certainly does not merit apocalyptic headlines.