December 16, 2007
Carbon Dioxide In Oceans Threatens To Kill Coral Reefs

I do not see global warming as an unsolvable problem or as a reason to stop using oil (especially since I think we are running out of oil anyway). We can use one cheap way to do climate engineering or yet another to keep down world temperatures. But as I've stated on previous occasions, CO2 build-up in the oceans seems like it might be the reason to worry about atmospheric CO2 build-up.

Since I think we are running out of oil and natural gas the question I most want answered with regard to the environment is how much coal does the world really have left that is accessible to extract and burn? American coal reserves and world coal reserves might be smaller than commonly thought. However, if the amount of accessible coal is large then CO2 emitted by burning coal for electricity and other purposes could acidify the oceans and kill all the coral reefs.

Stanford, CA — Carbon emissions from human activities are not just heating up the globe, they are changing the ocean’s chemistry. This could soon be fatal to coral reefs, which are havens for marine biodiversity and underpin the economies of many coastal communities. Scientists from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology have calculated that if current carbon dioxide emission trends continue, by mid-century 98% of present-day reef habitats will be bathed in water too acidic for reef growth. Among the first victims will be Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest organic structure.

Chemical oceanographers Ken Caldeira and Long Cao are presenting their results in a multi-author paper in the December 14 issue of Science* and at the annual meeting of American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on the same date. The work is based on computer simulations of ocean chemistry under levels of atmospheric CO2 ranging from 280 parts per million (pre-industrial levels) to 5000 ppm. Present levels are 380 ppm and rapidly rising due to accelerating emissions from human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels.

By the time we reach 550 ppm all the coral reefs are dead. Likely other ocean species will bite the dust as well. Time to switch to nuclear power. But in case we don't make that move, well, I've always wanted to see Australia's Coral Reefs. So I guess I need to fly down there on a fossil fuel burning CO2 emitting jumbo jet to see the Great Barrier Reef in all its glory before everyone else uses so much fossil that the reefs are dead. Some of you are thinking "what a twisted guy that FuturePundit is to think that". Yes, I'm pretty twisted in my thinking. But in this case that idea did not come from my imagination. Nope, I read it in the New York Times There's a growing travel industry in taking people to see what humanity is ruining and wrecking.

From the tropics to the ice fields, doom is big business. Quark Expeditions, a leader in arctic travel, doubled capacity for its 2008 season of trips to the northern and southernmost reaches of the planet. Travel agents report clients are increasingly requesting trips to see the melting glaciers of Patagonia, the threatened coral of the Great Barrier Reef, and the eroding atolls of the Maldives, Mr. Shapiro said.

Meet humanity. Why do some people say how wonderful it is?

So what should we do? Even if industrialized countries kick the carbon habit Asia and other places are on course to boost atmospheric CO2 levels.

Richard Richels, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute, helped produce an ominous forecast: even if the established industrial powers turned off every power plant and car right now, unless there are changes in policy in poorer countries the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could still reach 450 parts per million — a level deemed unacceptably dangerous by many scientists — by 2070. (If no one does anything, that threshold is reached in 2040.)

In my view this tells us that we need to develop cheaper alternatives to fossil fuels. We need to develop clean energy sources cheap enough that the developing countries will be lured away from coal to these alternatives.

Energy usage to manufacture goods for export is a major source of CO2 emissions in China.

Yet one of the biggest is the enormous increase in China’s production of manufactured goods for export. Indeed, a study by the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in Britain estimated that in 2004, net exports accounted for 23 percent of Chinese greenhouse gas emissions.

Think George W. Bush is an enemy of the environment? He's an environmentalist compared to the Chinese. China is bypassing the US as biggest CO2 emitter and probably is already the biggest emitter of conventional pollutants. Yet China is just getting started. Their emissions are going to get far worse (and not just on CO2) before they get better. More mercury. More particulates. More pollutants in rivers and the oceans. China's industrialization is a disaster for the world's environment.

A team of economists led by Dieter Helm at Oxford University claims that Britain's decrease in CO2 emissions is an illusion caused in part by importing products whose domestic manufacture used to cause domestic CO2 emissions.

The analysis says pollution from aviation, shipping, overseas trade and tourism, which are not measured in the official figures, means that UK carbon consumption has risen significantly over the past decade, and that the government's claims to have tackled global warming are an "illusion".


Under Kyoto, Britain must reduce its greenhouse gas output to 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2012. According to official figures filed with the UN, Britain's emissions are currently down 15% compared with 1990.

But the new report says UK carbon output has actually risen by 19% over that period, once the missing emissions are included in the figures.

Britain has basically exported some of its fossil fuels using industries (as have the United States and other Western countries) to countries like China whose leaders think nothing about setting new records in rates of pollution emissions. Again, doesn't this argue for a much more rapid development of technologies for cleaner energy to make those cleaner sources cheaper? We can't appeal to altruism or enlightened self interest about long term costs. Such arguments aren't going to work with China or India. They haven't even worked with Canada which signed Kyoto and then, under a left-of-center government, went on to greatly increase CO2 emissions since signing the treaty. Japan and other Kyoto signatories didn't meet their treaty obligations either.

Governments around the world aren't willing to impose much hardship on their populaces to reduce fossil fuels use. Some talk a good game. But coal mines are getting reopened in Germany and Britain.

A group of prominent scientists agree that a big increase in research funding is needed to solve our energy and environment problems.

The letter, sent Sunday, calls for at least $30 billion a year in spending to promote sustained research akin to the Apollo space program or the Manhattan Project.

It was drafted by Martin I. Hoffert, an emeritus physics professor at New York University; Kenneth Caldeira, a Carnegie Institution scientist based at Stanford University; and John Katzenberger, director of the Aspen Global Change Institute, a private research group. Other signers include Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, economics, and medicine.

Gregory Benford, Lowell Wood, and Nobelist Paul Crutzen are among the signers. You can read the full letter (PDF format). Note the graph showing types and levels of research funding from 1955 till today.

Update: Also see Andrew Revkin's article from a year ago: Budgets Falling in Race to Fight Global Warming.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 December 16 09:16 PM  Trends Habitat Loss

cancer_man said at December 16, 2007 10:00 PM:

Randall, again, we are not running out of oil. I read your response, and since it is now about to go off the page, worth repeating here. I added at the bottom:

You wrote:
The problem is that high prices, yes, do provide a big incentive for innovation. But in spite of those high prices we are still experiencing rising energy prices and rising general commodity prices. Incentives do not always work fast enough when the rate of change of some condition is high. Some technological innovations take many years.
cancer_man: But all economies keep growing strongly despite $90/barrel oil. The U.S., Japan and Europe have all grown even more quickly during the 2004 to 2007 oil increase. China and India haven't slowed down a bit. These higher prices are also open up more tar sand areas while ultra deep drilling is very new.

In 1920, the U.S. Geological Survey stated that the world only had 60 billion barrels of oil left.
In 1950, geologists estimated that the world had 600 billion barrels of oil.
In 1970, scientists estimated that the world had 1,500 billion barrels of oil.
In 1994, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the world had 2,400 billion barrels of oil.
In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the world had 3,000 billion barrels of oil

see a pattern here?
Randall: Technological understanding: I've worked in technological research projects that were started a couple of decades before I joined. I've watched very high IQ people try to solve all the problems that were standing in the way of using some new technology. Look at all the minds who have fought cancer. That's a hard hard problem. There are huge amounts of money to be made. But it still isn't solved. Necessity isn't always instantly the mother of invention - or at least not enough invention to come up with the final solution quickly.
cancer_man:I doubt there is a final solution, but several which keep improving as computer power increases exponentially. Some alternative energies have become exponentially cheaper, like solar, as you mention.

Brazil: You are the one who lacks understanding..... The rate of discovery has fallen well behind the rate of consumption and this condition has been the case for a couple of decades now.

cancer_man: I am aware of how many days of the world's supply the new finds represent. But there was the Gulf of Mexico find last year, and ultra deep drilling has only been around a few years.

Like I said, peak oil is believed by those who either don't get the economics or changing technology. Usually both.

Now, if anyone read this far, Randall responded:

1)"The US economy is slowing. The economy is not immune to rising costs of inputs."

Even if slowing, it is coming of years of sustained strong growth THROUGH SUMMER when oil prices were very high.
Many predicted recession as soon as oil hit $70, but oil isnt nearly as important as in the 1970s.

2)OPEC is lying

Well, yeah. As they have been since their creation, but the production and estimates keep rising. Peak oil keeps getting pushed back, and it is time smart people like you get this. It was 1974, then 1979, then 1989, then 2003, then 2006, then....

3)The IEA chief economist expects flat oil production between now and 2015.

But the IEA also stated in 2005 and 2007 that it anticipates no major technological gains through 2030!
Randall, you run a great site called FuturePundit, yet you agree with this laughable claim? Nothing much through 20 Mother of God 30?

4) "His co-author for some of his analyses is a Ph.D. physicist. And yet you claim the Peak Oil crowd lacks business or technological knowledge. Um, no"

But I didnt say that. I said they don't understand economics, quite different from business. I also said they don't get technological *change*. I never said they don't understand technology.

Peak Oil keeps getting pushed further and further.... It actually started in the late 1800s.

mike o. said at December 17, 2007 8:05 AM:

please look at inaccuracies in this article. water acidity is increased by sulfur from coal, carbon is acid neutral,flora loves co2, fauna loves flora. and ask yourselves, where do the coral get the carbon for their shell? (calcium carbonate). you may believe, or not, but should always be skeptical of "facts".

Bob Badour said at December 17, 2007 9:00 AM:

mike o.

Carbon may be acid neutral but CO2 is acidic. Carbonating a wine, for example, increases acidity.

Lester said at December 17, 2007 12:23 PM:

OMG, more computer model based apocalypse. When will they ever learn? Perhaps when the ghastly visions fail to materialize, or when they die, whichever's first.

Computer models tell you whatever you want them to tell you. A tweak here, a fudge there and voila. Anything you want, it's there for the taking.

Carbon dioxide is a very weak acid that contains its own buffer system against stronger acids. Sure, if you add hydrochloric acid to corals (like some researchers did) you see what strong acids do to corals. But that's a bait and switch tactic.

Fly said at December 17, 2007 1:05 PM:

re: CO2 and sea acidity

"“But if atmospheric CO2 stabilizes at 550 ppm -- and even that would take concerted international effort to achieve -- no existing coral reef will remain in such an environment.” The chemical changes will impact some regions sooner than others. At greatest risk are the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean Sea."

What time spans are they looking at? A thousand years?

Major ocean gyres take up to a thousand years to complete a cycle. Surface waters flow to the poles. Ice formation leaves saltier, denser, cold water that sinks. In this way high acidic surface water is replaced by less acidic "deep" water. Ocean surface water absorbs a limited amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Continual dilution by deep ocean currents limits the average increase in surface water acidity.

"The absorbed CO2 produces carbonic acid, the same acid that gives soft drinks their fizz, making certain minerals called carbonate minerals dissolve more readily in seawater. This is especially true for aragonite, the mineral used by corals and many other marine organisms to grow their skeletons."

Yeah basic chemistry. Yes, if the acidity rises enough reefs will dissolve. But how acidic would the ocean have to become and how long until the point is reached? A thousand years?

"“These changes come at a time when reefs are already stressed by climate change, overfishing, and other types of pollution,” says Caldeira, “so unless we take action soon there is a very real possibility that coral reefs — and everything that depends on them —will not survive this century.”

So the reefs will dissolve due to increasing acidity within the next hundred years? No. They didn't say that. In order the make the danger to the reefs a real possibility in the next hundred years they tossed in "climate change, overfishing, and other types of pollution".


Microbial sea life will adapt more rapidly than most biologists and ecologists predict. Microbial adaptation to environmental change is fast. Scientists will document the dying-off of existing communities but they will be slow to note the expansion of replacement communities. Or such expansions will be viewed as "unnatural" invasions.

Some "higher" life forms will be at risk for extinction as they are too dependent on specific food sources. The "generalists" shouldn't be in much danger. And those "generalists" will expand and fill the empty niches. There will be changes and some of the changes we won't like. But I highly doubt the ocean ecology is going to collapse in the next hundred years.

Human intervention will play an important role. Barren areas will be seeded with human-designed lifeforms. "LifeBoat" organizations will preserve tissue samples for the species of most interest to humans so they can be re-introduced as desired.

Human CO2 emissions will decline as alternative energy gets cheaper. Humanity will be able to directly manage atmospheric CO2 levels through a combination of bio-engineered plants combined with direct extraction of CO2. (Energy from carbon-based solar cell + CO2 + nano-manufacturing yields carbon-based solar cell + O2.) CO2 levels won't be a problem within one hundred years.

momochan said at December 17, 2007 1:54 PM:
Microbial sea life will adapt more rapidly than most biologists and ecologists predict. Microbial adaptation to environmental change is fast.

Of course microbial sea life will adapt. In the distant past, seawater has been far more acidic than it is now, and sea life pulled through somehow.

The problem is that evolution could be punctuated -- involving population crashes. Imagine the knock-on effects if we had to endure even a few years of small foramnifera populations, until acid-adapted foram populations propagate. It's not just that penguins or [insert charismatic fauna here] would starve; half of all our oxygen produced by the biosphere comes from such sea life.

But I'm open to evidence, so if someone can demonstrate that the probability of foram population plunges in a rapidly acidifying ocean is small enough to safely ignore, I'd welcome hearing it.

Fly said at December 17, 2007 3:26 PM:

"half of all our oxygen produced by the biosphere comes from such sea life"

Does it? I'm willing to believe that with satellite measurement and targeted sampling of ocean flora that the rate of photosynthesis can be calculated and that the sea biosphere accounts for half. But how much O2 is released into the atmosphere? From my recollection, most of that O2 is used by ocean life. Only a fraction of the carbon is sequestered on the ocean floor.

Nor do I believe that land based life would quickly die because O2 levels rapidly dropped. The O2 turn-over per year is only a small fraction of the total O2 stored in the atmosphere and the ocean. Land animals would do just fine with the O2 reserve and the O2 generated by land plants for a good while.

How would ocean life fare?

How about indirect evidence from fresh water eco systems where acidity has changed much more and much faster and where lower total population sizes mean lower evolutionary adaptation rates.

"In a study that underlines the resiliency of freshwater ecosystems, the scientists have also found that zooplankton, insects, benthic invertebrates and other creatures driven away by rising acidity levels return quickly and abundantly as water quality improves."

In this case the "higher" lifeforms such as trout survived but did not adapt to high pH. Clearly microbial populations didn't experience a sustained crash or the trout would have died.

There will be localized sea population crashes. These already occur when nutrient plumes cause massive phytoplankton blooms that deplete oxygen and kill fish. However, vacant niches are rapidly repopulated. (When a niche is already filled by a locally well-adapted species, invaders have difficulty making inroads. When an environment changes, a better adapted foreign species can quickly invade and dominate.) The spores and spawn of ocean life disperse widely, even across entire oceans. Any species that adapts to higher pH would quickly gain an advantage and spread.

I don't suggest we ignore this issue. I think human intervention could detect local problems and act to help bio systems recover. It is a question of intelligent management of resources. However, I don't believe we should let fear mongers push their pet agendas.

Randall Parker said at December 17, 2007 6:17 PM:


We only have one planet. If we make a change to ocean acidity and the result really does turn out to be a problem we can't just try again on another planet.

I get why people argue against scare mongering. But the scale of the changes we are causing shouldn't be treated with such insouciance. The stakes are way too high for that. Calling attention to ocean acidification isn't a pet agenda. It is prudent thinking.

I think we can count on natural selection to adapt some of the ocean organisms to the change. But the larger and more slowly reproducing organisms do not generate as much genetic variation on which to select for adaptations. So they are at greater risk.

The rate of growth of CO2 emissions is increasing. Compute what the industrialization of a few billion people means for the ecosystem.

Fly said at December 17, 2007 8:13 PM:


Scientific modeling of ocean acidification is "prudent thinking".

This, “These changes come at a time when reefs are already stressed by climate change, overfishing, and other types of pollution,” says Caldeira, “so unless we take action soon there is a very real possibility that coral reefs — and everything that depends on them —will not survive this century.”, is scare mongering.

averros said at December 17, 2007 11:54 PM:

> A group of prominent scientists agree that a big increase in research funding is needed
> to solve our energy and environment problems.

A group of prominent scientists agree that they should be paid more.

Is anyone surprised?

Dave H said at December 18, 2007 6:55 PM:

I'm curious, there are several people who object to using 'models' to predict what will happen when, for instance, atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches higher levels. Let us take as given that as long as we burn fossil fuels, there will be an increase. For the peak oil deniers, that will be for quite some time, for others, China is building a new coal fired power plant every ten days (not to mention they've set some coal fields on fire which are burning continuously) OK, so how much CO2 is going out? Well, lets see, we could for instance project (i.e. 'model') it based on intensity factors and GDP projections, or some other way. Since there is no way to know what the future holds until we get there, that is pretty much the only way. We can take that 'model' and test it against the past to see how well it holds up. Next step, how much stays in the atmosphere, more models. Then how will that impact temps? Models. The answer will be wrong, that is the nature of models, but we work to make them not too wrong at least for a range of inputs. Finding some flaw doesn't necessarily mean the model is not useful. Now on ocean acidity levels...hey wait, this can at least partly be tested by experiment or history. In fact, this is not news:
Now the point that with such complex models and so many variables and coefficients with so much interaction that it is difficult to tease out the answer is a good one. If you have a different model, and can show better results with model tests such as hindcasting, great. But given that the option of experiment is not allowed (or at least not feasible), modeling is the only option. Or putting our collective the sand.

TTT said at December 18, 2007 8:17 PM:

Ocean acidity is a MUCH more serious problem than 'global warming' which is not man-made anyway. The 'global warming' groupies will forget about the issue on 1/21/09, when Al Gore's importance suddenly diminishes.

Part of the reason ocean acidity is a bigger problem is because the amount of CO2 required to get to dangerous levels is low - far smaller than it would be to heat up the temperature of the Earth (something beyond mankind's ability).

Paul D. said at December 19, 2007 1:00 PM:

than 'global warming' which is not man-made anyway.

So, do you believe that extra CO2 doesn't cause warming, or that the observed CO2 increase is not due to human action?

Just want to understand what color your tinfoil hat is.

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