Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ocean acidification

I just came across yet another powerful appeal from scientists in response to rising CO2 levels - this one specifically on the problem of ocean acidification. As CO2 dissolves into seawater, it reacts to form carbonate and bicarbonate ions. Adding more CO2 changes the balance between these ions, and that lowers the pH of the water.

Seawater is naturally slightly alkali, but we have witnessed a drop in pH (lower pH = more acidic = less basic/alkali) of around 0.1 units of pH, from 8.2 to 8.1. That may not sound like much, but it is enough to affect marine organisms, and the effect is projected to worsen as CO2 emissions continue in the future.

Oceanographers have been reporting on this issue for some time now, and have expressed concern about the potential damage to marine ecosystems. The Monaco Declaration of January 30, 2009 was an attempt to highlight these serious concerns, bringing together some 155 oceanographers from 26 countries taking part in the ASLO Aquatic Sciences Conference.

The group have started an extensive website www.ocean-acidification.net with background information on the problem, news on current research and goals for future work.

I quickly checked the list of signatories against my list of climate scientists, and found 16 I'd already listed. Oceanography is an allied discipline to climate science, given the central role of the ocean in the carbon cycle. Oceanographers appreciate the ecosystem risks inherent in rapidly forced changes to ocean pH that come with spiking CO2 in the atmosphere.

Overall, marine life is one of the hidden victims of carbon pollution. The oceans are under assault on so many fronts, from runoff of pesticides, fertilizer and general contaminants, through overfishing, fish farms causing outbreaks of fish lice and releasing antibiotics, shrimp farming driving destruction of mangrove forests needed as nurseries by many marine species, massive buildup of non-biodegradable plastic garbage (shopping bags, lost fishing nets, etc.) that are ingested by seabirds, turtles and fish, plus now water temperature changes, sea level rise and acidification, all piled one on top of the other. There's a horrendous negative synergy compounding between all these separate ways we impact marine life. All this takes place out of sight of most of us, largely unreported and unnoticed.

Losses of both subsistence and commercial fisheries threaten economic disaster in coastal communities worldwide. It's time for us to wake up to what's happening below the waves. I urge everyone to read the Monaco Declaration and look through the www.ocean-acidification.net website. For more news on this topic, see Science Daily

Vast resources for learning

If you really want to understand the current outlook of climate scientists, and not just hear the opinions of bloggers making claims about what the science shows, there are many, many online resources that get you directly to the primary sources.

Nearly every science journal has an online edition now; indeed, some are phasing out paper editions to save costs and lower their environmental impact. While most still restrict full-text access to subscribers only, at least for the latest few issues, many now grant open access to back issues past a set window such as one year, and virtually all give free access to article abstracts. Many also have supplementary web content beyond the formal articles, which may include editorials, less technical subject reviews, news briefs, commentary, etc. as well as source data too extensive to fit into print format.

I've made up a web page listing over sixty journals that address climate science and allied disciplines, such as oceanography, biogeochemistry, etc.

Many readers will find most of the research articles in the academic journals beyond their interest or understanding; they are, after all, intended for professionals within their field, and will come across as "inside baseball" loaded with statistics, equations, jargon and loads of assumed background, leaving most of us struggling to keep up. That's normal, and it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with us for not being insiders, nor with them for talking to one another at their own level. When looking through academic journals, look especially for "review articles" which aim to recap the highlights of the state-of-the-art on a particular topic; these can be a better entry point for non-specialists trying to get a start on an unfamiliar subject. But even these will often demand a good measure of "science literacy."

For the "rest of us" who have not studied these fields enough to follow the primary literature, is there still a way to follow what's happening? Indeed there are several. Science journalism is still alive and has much to offer to the interested lay person. While the financial pressures on tradional media - both print and broadcast - have put the squeeze on science journalism in mass media, there are still many good sources in "science news."

This would include magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American which attempt to address a broader audience while still aiming for the standards of academic publication - editorial and peer review, citation, and publishing qualified rebuttals.

As well, some of the top journals have supplementary products addressing science news and current issues. The AAAS website supplements their lead journal Science with an extensive website sciencemag.org, a lively podcast of science headlines and features. The magazine website has headlines linking to journal article abtracts, which are free for public access; full text of articles requires subscription or online payment.

Similarly, the UK's Royal Society supplements their lead print journal Nature with a fine website, including an entire site devoted to climate change at Nature Reports Climate Change
So although both Science and Nature are subscriber-only, each has free public access to excellent supplementary material, including much of relevance to climate.

Another excellent source is ScienceDaily, a free science news site with clear, brief write-ups of current work in all areas of science. To see what they've covered on climate, glaciers, ocean acidification, or whatever, just use their search box.

So if you are unfamiliar with what has been going on in the process of climate science, or only hearing about it second or third hand from bloggers, do yourself a favour and get a look at some of the excellent primary material, as well as good journalism reporting directly on primary sources, that is available online.