Ocean Acidification: Another Global Warming Scare
Bites the Dust

Written by Roger Graves

I was doing a bit of research the other day and I came across a rather interesting example of how some of the scare stories that the global warming lobby puts out are based on misdirections and outright lies. This particular one is based on a math error that would have got you sent to the bottom of the class in grade school.

You have probably heard the warnings about ocean acidification. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are going to be absorbed by the oceans, which will turn them acidic, and all marine life will die as a result. Protect us oh holy Al Gore, we beseech thee. Something like that anyway.

Turns out that the whole idea of ocean acidification arose because somebody mislaid a factor of a million in a scientific paper published in 1979.

Our knowledge of the carbon dioxide content of the oceans comes largely from a 1970's US program known as GEOSECS (Geochemical Ocean Sections Study). Unlike a lot of the global warming and climate change scares, which are based on dubious computer models, this program involved a lot of men and women going down to the sea in ships and taking a lot of samples of seawater and analysing the heck out of them. About 12,000 samples of seawater in fact, from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, summer and winter, at all depths from the surface to the ocean floor. At the end of the program a technical paper was written by three scientists involved in the program summarizing the data for the carbon dioxide content and alkalinity of the oceans. Since this particular paper is the one that started the ocean acidification scare, you may want to check it out for yourselves, although being a technical paper it is rather, well, technical. Just Google its title: "The Alkalinity and Total Carbon Dioxide Concentration in the World Oceans" and it will come up.

The paper correctly calculated the average carbon dioxide concentration of the oceans, i.e. the average amount of carbon dioxide per litre of seawater, and then calculated the total amount of carbon dioxide in the world's oceans by multiplying this figure by the volume of the oceans. Unfortunately, the figure they used for the volume of the oceans was 1,370 cubic kilometres (see p.279 of their paper), whereas the actual figure is 1,370,000,000 cubic km plus change. If you want to check this figure for yourself, it isn't rocket science, you just need high school math plus some numbers, which are: radius of Earth is 6371 km, average ocean depth is 3.794 km, and the oceans cover 70.8% of the Earth's surface. As a result of this minor oversight, their figure for the total carbon dioxide content of the oceans was too low by a factor of a million. Now, if this figure had been buried in the middle of the paper it might not have been noticed, but as it happens it was given pride of place in the summary paragraph at the top of the paper.

Most technical papers have a summary paragraph at the top so that you can get the basic gist of the paper without having to wade through it all. What's more, most people, being only human, just read the summary and don't bother with the rest. However, in this case the summary gave a figure for the total carbon dioxide content of the world's oceans that was too low by a factor of a million, and to make matters worse, didn't mention the (correct) average concentration from which this figure was derived.

Based on this erroneous total carbon dioxide content, the atmosphere appears to contain about 20,000 times as much carbon dioxide as the oceans, in which there is apparently only a trace amount of carbon dioxide. It would seem reasonable under this scenario to assume that any increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide would leach into the oceans and cause it to become acid. Shock! horror! the oceans will become acid and everything in the oceans will die. Save us, oh holy Al Gore! However, if you put that missing factor of a million back in you find that the oceans actually contain over 50 times as much carbon dioxide as the atmosphere. Moreover, the oceans occupy a smaller volume than the atmosphere, so the oceanic concentration of carbon dioxide is well over 100 times that of the atmosphere. Add to this the fact that the oceans are comfortably alkaline in spite of this amount of carbon dioxide, and it should be obvious that ocean acidification due to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is an absurd fantasy.

A further paper, "The oceans as a CO2 reservoir", was published in 1982 giving the correct data. However, by then the damage had been done and the myth of ocean acidification was firmly entrenched.

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