Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Acidification article - health warning

This week's cover story for New Scientist is my article on acidification. I hope it's useful. But please note that, contrary to the cover of the magazine (which shows warning signs for corrosive action on human flesh posted along a tropical beach), scientists are not saying, and the article does not allege at any point, that the seas will become acid or corrosive to humans as a result of manmade emissions. Evidence does however indicate, and the article reports, that the oceans will become less alkaline over a very short timescale geologically speaking, and the results are unlikely to be positive for natural ecosystems and humanity during the 21st century and beyond.

The sea is not and never will be “acid”. But the word “acidification” is correct. Consider this analogy: a recently made cup of coffee would be called “hot” in day to day language, but it could also be described as “cooling” (particularly if you blow on it). This does not mean that the cup of coffee is “cold”. Likewise, the ocean can become "more acid" (less alkaline) without being acid. Pedants may prefer “de-alkalinisation”, but this does not affect the science.

The article states that the term acidification first appears in the scientific literature in a 2003 briefing in Nature by Caldeira and Wickett. This is correct as far as I have been able to determine. It is also the case that much of the most important work on anthropogenic acidification has been done in the last five years or so, with the result that the likely true gravity of the issues becoming better understood.

This does not mean that all scientific work on this topic is new. Early work includes a paper by Wally Broeker et al from 1966.

The article has been edited by New Scientist for ease of reading. It does not go into great depth. Certainly, the science is still developing. My forthcoming book on the future of coral reefs will have a chapter or section on acidification which will go into more detail –and be even more readable!

This a “science-y” piece on a “science-y” topic. But the story of coral reefs and their future is also a moral, political, economic, social, cultural one, concerning human imagination and failing.

Please contact me if you would like a pdf of the article, which has nice pictures and graphs. The New Scientist online version includes an audio interview with Joanie Kleypas by Ivan Semeniuk in which she provides an elementary introduction to acidification.

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