Good news about ocean acidification! Important news about science.

Summary: Good news is rare in the news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but here’s a twofer. First, ocean acidification is probably not certain doom, as we’ve been told. Second, new evidence that climate-related sciences are returning to their norms of careful skepticism. Our usual stream of bad news will resume tomorrow.

Coral Outcrop on Flynn Reef By Toby Hudson
Coral outcrop on Flynn Reef. Photo by Toby Hudson from Wikimedia Commons.


The February/March issue of the ICES Journal of Marine Science is an important special issue “Towards a Broader Perspective on Ocean Acidification Research“, with some surprising news. The Times laid it out forthrightly…

Scientists‘ are exaggerating carbon threat to marine life’

Claims that coral reefs are doomed because human emissions are making the oceans more acidic have been exaggerated, a review of the science has found.

An “inherent bias” in scientific journals in favour of more calamitous predictions has excluded research showing that marine creatures are not damaged by ocean acidification, which is caused by the sea absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It has been dubbed the “evil twin of climate change” and hundreds of studies have claimed to show that it destroys coral reefs and other marine life by making it harder for them to develop shells or skeletons. The review found that many studies had used flawed methods, subjecting marine creatures to sudden increases in carbon dioxide that would never be experienced in real life.

“In some cases it was levels far beyond what would ever be reached even if we burnt every molecule of carbon on the planet,” Howard Browman, the editor of ICES Journal of Marine Science, who oversaw the review, said. He added that this had distracted attention from more urgent threats to reefs such as agricultural pollution, overfishing and tourism.

Dr Browman, who is also principal research scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, found there had been huge increase in articles on ocean acidification in recent years, rising from five in 2005 to 600 last year. He said that a handful of influential scientific journals and lobbying by international organisations had turned ocean acidification into a major issue.

“Such journals tend to publish doom and gloom stories … stated without equivocation,” he said. The bias in favour of doom-laden articles was partly the result of pressure on scientists to produce eye-catching work, he added. “You won’t get a job unless you publish an article that is viewed as of significant importance to society. People often forget that scientists are people and have the same pressures on them and the same kind of human foibles. Some are driven by different things. They want to be prominent.”

Dr Browman invited scientists around the world to contribute studies on ocean acidification for a special edition of his journal. More than half of the 44 studies selected for publication found that raised levels of CO2 had little or no impact on marine life, including crabs, limpets, sea urchins and sponges.

Dr Browman said that the edition had demonstrated that there was “a body of work out there that people had difficulty publishing elsewhere” and that “not every study shows that Nemo is going to be doomed”, a reference to the reef-dwelling clownfish in the Disney film Finding Nemo.

The term ocean acidification was also a misnomer, he said, because it suggested that the oceans could become acidic instead of alkaline. “The oceans will never become acid because there is such a huge buffering capacity in the oceans. We simply could never release enough CO2 into the atmosphere to cause the pH to go below 7 {the point in the pH scale at which a solution becomes acidic}. “If they had called it something else, such as ‘lower alkalinity’, it wouldn’t have been as catchy,” he said.

Dr Browman, a marine scientist for 35 years, said he was not saying that ocean acidification posed no threat, but that he believed that “a higher level of academic scepticism” should be applied to the topic.”


ICES Journal of Marine Science, February/March 2016

Summary of the findings

Howard I. Browman wrote the introductory article to this issue: “Applying organized scepticism to ocean acidification research“. It’s valuable reading for anyone following the climate change crisis. Abstract…

“Ocean acidification” (OA), a change in seawater chemistry driven by increased uptake of atmospheric CO2 by the oceans, has probably been the most-studied single topic in marine science in recent times. The majority of the literature on OA report negative effects of CO2 on organisms and conclude that OA will be detrimental to marine ecosystems.

As is true across all of science, studies that report no effect of OA are typically more difficult to publish. Further, the mechanisms underlying the biological and ecological effects of OA have received little attention in most organismal groups, and some of the key mechanisms (e.g. calcification) are still incompletely understood. For these reasons, the ICES Journal of Marine Science solicited contributions to this special issue.

In this introduction, I present a brief overview of the history of research on OA, call for a heightened level of organized (academic) scepticism to be applied to the body of work on OA, and briefly present the 44 contributions that appear in this theme issue. OA research has clearly matured, and is continuing to do so. We hope that our readership will find that, when taken together, the articles that appear herein do indeed move us “Towards a broader perspective on ocean acidification research”.

The boldest section is “Applying organized scepticism to research on the effects of OA”.

Scientific or academic scepticism calls for critical scrutiny of research outputs before they are accepted as new knowledge (Merton, 1973). Duarte et al. (2014) stated that “…there is a perception that scientific skepticism has been abandoned or relaxed in many areas…” of marine science. They argue that OA is one such area, and conclude that there is, at best, weak evidence to support an OA-driven decline of calcifiers.

Below, I raise some of the aspects of OA research to which I contend an insufficient level of organized scepticism has been applied (in some cases, also to the articles in this theme issue). I arrived at that conclusion after reading hundreds of articles on OA (including, to be fair, some that also raise these issues) and overseeing the peer-review process for the very large number of submissions to this themed issue. Importantly, and as Duarte et al. (2014) make clear, a retrospective application of scientific scepticism such as the one that follows could — and should — be applied to any piece of/body of research.

Knowledge: venn diagram

Keeping perspective: evidence that decreased ocean pH hurts corals

Browman is not overturning the well-established knowledge about the problem, such described in this new study: “Reversal of ocean acidification enhances net coral reef calcification” by Rebecca Albright et al, Nature, in press. See these articles in Nature describing this paper for a general audience: “Landmark experiment confirms ocean acidification’s toll on Great Barrier Reef” by Jeff Tollefson and “Turning Back Time” by Janice Lough. Abstract.

Approximately one-quarter of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year is absorbed by the global oceans, causing measurable declines in surface ocean pH, carbonate ion concentration ([CO32−]), and saturation state of carbonate minerals (Ω). This process, referred to as ocean acidification, represents a major threat to marine ecosystems, in particular marine calcifiers such as oysters, crabs, and corals.

Laboratory and field studies have shown that calcification rates of many organisms decrease with declining pH, [CO32−], and Ω. Coral reefs are widely regarded as one of the most vulnerable marine ecosystems to ocean acidification, in part because the very architecture of the ecosystem is reliant on carbonate-secreting organisms. Acidification-induced reductions in calcification are projected to shift coral reefs from a state of net accretion to one of net dissolution this century.

While retrospective studies show large-scale declines in coral, and community, calcification over recent decades, determining the contribution of ocean acidification to these changes is difficult, if not impossible, owing to the confounding effects of other environmental factors such as temperature.

Here we quantify the net calcification response of a coral reef flat to alkalinity enrichment, and show that, when ocean chemistry is restored closer to pre-industrial conditions, net community calcification increases. In providing results from the first seawater chemistry manipulation experiment of a natural coral reef community, we provide evidence that net community calcification is depressed compared with values expected for pre-industrial conditions, indicating that ocean acidification may already be impairing coral reef growth.


The slow return of climate-related sciences to normal standards does not mean that the Earth is saved, or that environmentalism is not an important public policy priority. Rather it helps us see that we face a wide range of threats, and need broad and clear vision to allocate our limited resources to preventing and mitigating damage.

For More Information

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6 thoughts on “Good news about ocean acidification! Important news about science.”

    1. F. Proeschel,

      This Nat Geo article claims that…

      “For years, researchers have warned that the increasing acidity of the oceans is likely to create a whole host of problems for the marine environment. Most of these warnings were predictions for future decades as well as theories about possible impacts based on experiments under artificial conditions. Now, scientists have discovered proof that ocean acidification is having significant impacts on an Antarctic marine snail…”

      Is it correct? The article has an incorrectly formatted link to the actual article in Nature, but with a little work finds this news article: “Extensive dissolution of live pteropods in the Southern Ocean“, N. Bednaršek et al, Nature Geoscience, Dec 2012. Abstract:

      “The carbonate chemistry of the surface ocean is rapidly changing with ocean acidification, a result of human activities. In the upper layers of the Southern Ocean, aragonite — a metastable form of calcium carbonate with rapid dissolution kinetics — may become undersaturated by 2050. Aragonite undersaturation is likely to affect aragonite-shelled organisms, which can dominate surface water communities in polar regions.

      Here we present analyses of specimens of the pteropod Limacina helicina antarctica that were extracted live from the Southern Ocean early in 2008. We sampled from the top 200 m of the water column, where aragonite saturation levels were around 1, as upwelled deep water is mixed with surface water containing anthropogenic CO2. Comparing the shell structure with samples from aragonite-supersaturated regions elsewhere under a scanning electron microscope, we found severe levels of shell dissolution in the undersaturated region alone.

      According to laboratory incubations of intact samples with a range of aragonite saturation levels, eight days of incubation in aragonite saturation levels of 0.94–1.12 produces equivalent levels of dissolution. As deep-water upwelling and CO2 absorption by surface waters is likely to increase as a result of human activities, we conclude that upper ocean regions where aragonite-shelled organisms are affected by dissolution are likely to expand.”

      The Nat Geo claim is false. If you read the study, you’ll see it opens with a discussion of acidification occurring due to natural causes (e.g., winter cooling and winds in the Southern Ocean bring deeper waters to the surface, dropping the number of carbonate ions by 25% relative to summer). They show the damage this inflicts on these snails.

      They conclude (logically) that if ocean acidification increases as models predict, then this kind of damage will become more widespread. They do not show evidence that this effect has changed over time — that it is larger, more frequent, or more widespread than in the past when CO2 levels were lower.

      What the Nat Geo article show is another example of misrepresentation of science for political purposes (or clickbait). Years of this have eroded the reputation of science in US society (historically prone to anti-intellectualism). The effects of this might prove severe.

  1. Reblogged this on Climatism and commented:
    The very fact “ocean acidification” is referred, as opposed to the correct scientific term “less alkaline” is enough to know that the CO2 induced “ocean acidification” threat was a fear-mongering beat up from the very beginning, trotted out by the climate crisis industry.

    Not to mention the fact that ocean Corals evolved during the Cambrian era when atmospheric CO2 levels were around 4,000 percent higher than today’s CO2 starved environment – 6,000 ppm then c/w 400 ppm today.

  2. Good article. But I think your heading: “Keeping perspective: evidence that increased Ph of the oceans hurts corals” should say “decreased pH” (higher acidity = lower pH).

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