Time to Be Terrified of Ocean Acidification – If You Lived 252 Million Years Ago That Is

Ninjakeg/Wikimedia Commons

Yet another study on ocean acidification has been published this week, maintaining the drumbeat of fear that sea life is on the verge of dissolving thanks to us evil humans.

Despite the fact that this Paleoclimate research concerns a pre-historic period, the authors have been quick to dial up the alarm for those of us living in the 21st century. Matthew Clarkson of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences says in the press release “This is a worrying finding, considering that we can already see an increase in ocean acidity today that is the result of human carbon emissions.”

Paleoclimatology is a sub discipline of climate science that primarily uses a variety of proxies to infer climatological conditions in the past before humans began making consistent and direct observations. As a result it is fraught with uncertainty and not a little controversy. Perhaps the most infamous Paleoclimatologist is Michael Mann of “hockey stick” fame. His chosen proxies were tree rings and he used them to – incorrectly – conclude that global temperatures had been highly stable in the centuries leading up to the 20th century, where they suddenly and alarmingly shot upwards.

Ocean acidification by proxy

Given the fact that the field rests on a raft of assumptions, speculations and inferences it would be reasonable to assume that its conclusions were presented in responsibly couched terms, highlighting the uncertainties, right? Wrong. This ocean acidification study is a classic example of just how irresponsible climate scientists and their communications have become.

The actual scientific paper uses temperate and highly qualified language. It is instructive to compare it to the press release issued by the lead author’s institution. The latter is titled “Greatest extinction driven by acidic oceans.” The paper’s title by contrast is “Ocean acidification and the Permo-Triassic mass extinction.” The press release goes on to highlight “soaring [carbon] emissions”, explaining how the paper “shows” that the sudden release of carbon “wiped out more than 90 per cent of marine species and more than two-thirds of the animals living on land.”

It shows no such thing.

Here are the first two lines of the abstract: “Ocean acidification triggered by Siberian Trap volcanism was a possible kill mechanism for the Permo-Triassic Boundary mass extinction, but direct evidence for an acidification event is lacking.” See that? This was a possible mechanism at work and there is no direct evidence for an acidification event. Everything is inferred, as a possibility, from proxies – in this case from boron isotope data (as a ph proxy) drawn from rocks in the U.A.E. and, you guessed it, computer models. (Incidentally, another paleo study, using a different proxy and alternative location comes to the complete opposite conclusion regarding how ocean acidification occurs).

Even if the University of Edinburgh research has correctly assessed these events in the distant past, the fact remains that the extinction was driven by severe volcanic activity. Humans obviously had nothing to do with it then and could have nothing to do with a repeat now. These are completely natural phenomena. This does not stop the university and the authors from irresponsibly implying that life on the planet is under a similarly severe threat from anthropogenic carbon.

Scientists have often complained in the past that the media quotes them out of context and adds alarming spin to otherwise ponderous and carefully worded scientific work. They have no such excuse in this case (and it is, sadly, one example amongst many in the climate science literature).

The lead institution provided the alarm-packed press release itself. The scientists can’t even blame the university marketing department as one of the authors, Clarkson, is unambiguously quoted (see above) tying his research in with current events with which his paper has at best a tenuous link.  If anything some of the media coverage has been less alarmist than the press release!

A final, cynical, point on this is warranted before moving on. The press release itself does not contain a direct link to the published paper. This guarantees that much more of the press coverage will follow the alarmist narratives set up in the former and somewhat snubbed in the latter. It is, like the distinctly unscientific language used, an all too common practice by supposedly trustworthy and august institutions.

Ocean acidification by direct observation

Surely the present concerns regarding ocean acidification have a more solid basis in fact as they have direct observations for decades to support them? Yes and no.

Land based temperature data sets are already shaky – stretching back to the nineteenth century are relatively patchy and unreliable. The ph level data sets however are a whole order of magnitude worse, covering very little of the ocean and of that only really at the upper levels. Plus ph fluctuations in any one spot just in the space of short periods can be huge.

It’s a mess to be sure. However, can anything useful be gleaned at all for the sake of argument if the dataset is taken at face value?

Well, like the animals on Orwell’s farm, all data is equal but some data is more equal than others.

Thankfully for us, there are still some honest scientists out there. A hydrologist of 30 years’ experience, Mike Wallace, blew the whistle late last year on what can only be described as purposeful deception at work in the public presentation of the ocean ph data. He submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in order to obtain the workings and data used by two scientists who had been pushing the ocean acidification line, Dr. Richard A. Feely and Dr. Christopher L. Sabine. Both scientists initially did not want to release the information to Wallace originally, so he was forced to go down the FOIA route.

Comparing Feely and Sabine’s records to the full NOAA World Ocean Database, Wallace found a shocking discrepancy and it is best illustrated through comparison of two images.

Below is Feely’s chart used to demonstrate ocean acidification occurring. It correlates risingCO2 with falling ph levels. Pay especial attention to the years for which data is shown for the two ph lines.


Here is what the full NOAA dataset shows for the 20th century as charted by Wallace:


As you can see the data used by Feely has been purposefully truncated to show what looks like an alarming – and by implication unprecedented – drop in ph. The complete data for the 20th century not only shows a significant amount of variability it also shows a rise in ph after 1950 (OMG – ocean caustification!) which is when human activity is supposed to begin measurably and significantly affecting the natural environment. Then there’s a much steeper drop than the contemporary period just before 1920. Notice too the contrast between the linear trends, (though not necessarily a useful statistic for comparison of ph movements as ph is a logarithmic scale), according to how much of the data is included.

Neither paleo nor modern climatology research then shows convincing evidence for alarm over anthropogenic ocean acidification, yet supposedly scientific proponents of both bang the drum for fear and loathing of humanity the ocean ecosystem-killer.  Worse, the case made by leaders of the second group rests on willful deception.

Someone has some serious explaining to do.