Major Study: Oceans Acidifying at “Unprecedented” Rate

University of Southern California and 17 others surveyed 300 million years of ocean life

Increasing ocean acidity can also affect nutrients like nitrogen.

The breadth of this study  – 18 research institutions and 21 scientists worldwide — and the examination of hundreds of studies stretching so far back into the geologic record makes this conclusion a singularly solid statement about the present trend.

“From everything we know today, it looks like the current rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions” may spell the loss of “organisms we care about — coral reefs, oysters, salmon,” says Bärbel Hönisch, the study’s lead author, who I reached by phone in New York. She’s a paleo-oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The paper’s being published today in the journal Science.

The danger comes from what happens when CO2 is absorbed by the oceans: CO2 and water create carbonic acid, the stuff that makes soft drinks bubbly. It also makes the oceans more acidic. That acid can dissolve the shells of “keystone” species that are the building blocks for marine life. The world’s oceans are already twice as acidic – a pH drop from 8.2 to 8.1 — as they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. That’s an acidification rate 10 times faster than anything found in the record over the past 300 million years, according to this new survey.

For her part in the study, USC doctoral candidate Rowan Martindale was looking at the juncture between the Triassic and Jurassic eras, 200 million years ago. It was a cataclysmic time when the earth’s continents were splitting apart, huge strings of volcanoes were erupting, atmospheric CO2 was at one of the highest levels ever and — you guessed it — hardly any evidence of limestone or coral, two things that dissolve in acidic water. It marked one of the five biggest extinction events in the planet’s history. Atmospheric carbon was increasing at the rate of one gigaton – about 2.2 trillion pounds — per year.

“The modern ocean chemistry is changing, and nobody really knows exactly what’s going happen.”

Today, atmospheric carbon is increasing at the rate of eight gigatonnes per year — about 17.6 trillion pounds. ‘Something weird was going on in the ocean back then,” Martindale says. “The modern ocean chemistry is changing, and nobody really knows exactly what’s going happen.”

Hönisch says the team cited hundreds of studies — the journal had to put a limit on their end list of 218 items — and looked at many more over the past year-and-a-half. “The strength is that when we compare these different events [in the geologic record], we can see the similarities. We can also see where we need more information.”

Both Honisch and Martindale will tell you the paleo record has its gaps and intriguing questions for further study — exactly how atmospheric warming interacts with ocean acidity, and key ocean sediments they’d love to sample that have disappeared back below the sea floor, for example — but their conclusion is clear: the world’s oceans are acidifying at a rate that has never been seen before.

“Maybe things are not as bad as we think, but we don’t know, says Hönisch. “[And] by the time we do, it may be too late to turn around.”

How Plastic Trees Could Help Pull Carbon Dioxide Out of the Air

We know that real trees soak up carbon from the atmosphere — but fake trees?

And you thought plastic palm trees had no redeeming value...

A cheap plastic that removes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere? “Yes,” says a team of chemists at the University of Southern California’s  (USC) Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, led by Nobel Prize winner George Olah. Science Now reports on their work with an inexpensive polymer called polyethylenimine or PEI.

But how to maximize its absorption capabilities? Olah’s team dissolved the polymer in a solvent and spread it out, peanut-butter-style, on fumed silica — you know, like the stuff in those desiccant packets in your electronics packaging (“Do not eat,” by the way).  It’s also used as a stabilizer for lipstick and other make-up.

Continue reading

Can Rocks Really Store Enough CO2 to Keep it Out of the Atmosphere?

Stanford study suggests that carbon dioxide “sequestration” can be part of the global warming solution.

Stanford researchers Sally Benson and Jean-Christophe Perrin measure the movement of CO2 through rock samples.

Sally Benson and her lab crew have been giving rocks a very hard time.

The energy resources engineering professor has been heating rock to 122 degrees and subjecting it to the pressure of a hundred atmospheres —  the same pressure present at a half-mile or so underground — to see how carbon dioxide would move through the microscopic nooks and crannies.

It’s a key question for energy companies pinning their hopes on “carbon capture and sequestration” (CCS) as way to mitigate the high greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. In practical terms, that means intercepting the CO2 and pumping it underground, essentially forever. Continue reading

A Source of CO2 That Might Surprise You

That babbling brook out back has been holding out on you

A satellite view of the Mississippi River shows a mosaic of riverbank land-use patterns.

Rivers and streams in the United States are releasing a lot more CO2 into the atmosphere than scientists previously thought, according to a new study by scientists at Yale. In fact, American waterways are discharging the gas into the atmosphere at a rate of 100 million metric tons per year, an amount equal to a car burning 40 billion gallons of gas, researchers say.

The study, conducted by David Butman and Peter Raymond of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, looked at water chemistry data from more than 4,000 rivers and streams. The authors say identifying this significant source of CO2 could change the way scientists model the movement of carbon through ecosystems and the atmosphere.

“These rivers breathe a lot of carbon,” said Butman in a press release from the National Science Foundation, one of the study’s funders. “They are a source of carbon dioxide, just like we breathe out carbon dioxide and like smokestacks emit carbon dioxide.”

The study is published in the current issue of Nature Geoscience.