Tag Archive: oceans

I sit at the Carrboro Really Free Market, on the first caturday in July. I sit in the shade and the banners are blowing lazily in the breeze; still it’s nearly 100 degrees; the humidity jacks it up to 103, and the breeze is welcome but ineffectual. Air quality is ‘Orange’: ozone levels ‘may approach or exceed unhealthy standards.’ A parade is planned but only a handful want to move; I’m definitely not going back out. I keep a cold pack in my bag to refridgerate my computer, but I worry that the condensation from the humid air will offset the benefits of a cool processor. Whatever; I need chill tunes if I’m going to bike around in this weather.

A constant source of frustration for me is communicating the local importance of global problems. Climate change is real, and it’s serious – but at the same time it can be intangible and diffuse. I live in the North Carolina piedmont, hours away from the beach. I can explain to my neighbors that ocean acidification is a serious problem, that the demise of coral reefs would mean the loss of food and resources for the third world. But even if they believe me, even if they agree that it’s bad news, it can still be hard to see how global warming effects them personally, as a homeowner, a farmer, a pet owner or the parent of a young child, a worker with a daily commute. How does carbon dioxide pollution impact North Carolina and beyond?

rock me momma like the wind and the rain//rock me momma like a hurricane

Let’s start at the beach. An obvious problem here is rising sea levels. As the ocean heats up, it expands; as ice heats up, it melts and drains into the sea (or, it calves, falls into the sea, and then melts). This causes a slow but steady rise in sea level. Sea level is predicted to rise by a meter (maybe more) over the 21st century, and 4-6 m over the next few centuries. This is bad news bears – in many coastal counties, more than 10% of the population lives within a meter of high tide. The threat to homes and businesses is worsened by storm surges, which will also be higher as the seas rise [Strauss 2012]. North Carolina has a unique relationship with sea level rise. The coastal salt marshes have recorded 2,100 years of sea level history in their smelly mucky sediments; the ocean stayed relatively stable up until about 1880, when it began to creep upwards. The average rate of sea level rise for the NC coast over the 20th century was ‘greater than any other persistent, century-scale trend’ in the marsh’s memory. During this time period, the seas rose 3.5 times faster than they did even during the Medieval Warm Period, and regional sea level rose faster than model predictions over the 20th century (though the uncertainties involved overlap.) [Kemp et al. 2011]

Sea level rise at the North Carolina coast over the past two millenia. Things are pretty stable, even during climatic episodes like the MWP – until we get to the late 19th century. Then the hockey stick gets hockey stuck. GIA is glacial isostatic adustment, an additional factor which must be considered. It deals with the fact that the North American landmass is still rebounding from the weight of Ice Age glaciers. Image from Figure 2 of Kemp et al. 2011

But what’s really special is the state legislature’s reaction to the rising tide. This June, the NC Senate infamously outlawed the use of accelerating sea level scenarios in planning urban development. The usual astroturfing seems to be at play: the money trail for this legislation leads back to the Locke Foundation; spokespeople and nonprofits proliferate to establish a consent factory. These hijinks are as cynical as they are asinine: not only is global sea level rise accelerating [Church & White 2006], but North Carolina is at the southern end of a ‘hotspot’ where the sea is rising 3-4 times as fast as the global average, [Sallenger et al. 2012] putting its coastline at exceptional risk. The legislation is also a lovely inversion on a popular skuptik trope, that of an authoritarian scientific Orthodoxy dictating Truth and squelching dissidents. In this case, it’s the state government which has declared which climatic scenarios are kosher and which are thought crimes, favoring the least alarming. The proposed law would not merely declare what course sea level rise will take in the years to come, but also prohibit state planning agencies from considering alternatives. Not content to legislate straight marriage as the only valid relationship, the Old North State is considering straight lines as the only acceptable graph.

“You need to move indoors right now.”

Meteorologist Dr. Forbes, on Philadelphian extreme weather.

It’s Friday night, 29 June, and forecasts of a sweltering weekend have already started to come true. I am sifting through hardware at work when the power goes out. Continue reading

A companion article at ArkFab shares my thoughts on peer review in regards to this project and DIY/community/citizen science in general. 

At long last, the much-anticipated booklet, “CO2 Trouble: Ocean Acidification, Dr. Everett, and Congressional Science Standards” is available and approved for human consumption! Download and share HERE (or at Scribd HERE).

In this document, I have bundled, updated, and expanded my series of essays debunking the congressional testimony of Dr. John Everett regarding the environmental chemistry of carbon dioxide.

It has been designed to be a fairly short (less than 30 pages, including images, appendicies, etc.) and accessible read. It has been challenging but fun to write; I have had to learn a lot about GIMP, Python, Scribus, social networking, and of course ocean acidification to get to this point.

It was also very useful for me as an opportunity to go back through my earlier remarks and double-check my work. For example, I later realized that the documentation which Dr. Everett provides for his CO2 data in part two is ambiguous: Although the citation for the rate data is referred to as “Recent Global CO2”, the URL provided links to the longer record as measured at Mauna Loa Observatory. This confusion had led me in the past to make incorrect claims about some of the figures he presents. Ultimately it was inconsequential to my argument, but it was frustrating to have to deal with such ambiguities. On the other hand, this led me into comparing the Mauna Loa record with the global record (Appendix B) which was an interesting exercise.

In researching this project, I also came across new phenomena I wasn’t previously aware of. For example, while I was calculating historical rates of CO2 change, I ran though the 1000-year Law Dome record and saw this:

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Supposedly posts with images get all the clix. So here is an image. Via PictureIsUnrelated; clix for sauces.

Part VI of John Everett’s testimony is a criticism of a geoengineering approach to ocean acidification. I agree with his conclusion (that adding alkaline calcium carbonate to the oceans is not a useful approach to ocean acidification) but nevertheless find this section to be problematic. I’ll return to it once I’ve finished with the rest of his testimony.

Part VII is a collection of research suggestions “that would go a long way toward establishing the likely effects of an increased CO2 world.” On the surface, it’s hard to take issue with his suggestions, but in the context of the rest of his testimony, they ring rather hollow.

For example, his first research suggestion is the development of

“a CO2/temperature timeline based on extant research on past climates, at least back to about 600 million years before the present. This effort would provide a critical review of candidate papers and unpublished work that goes well beyond a typical peer-reviewed journal publication, or prior summary reports of the IPCC.”

I think that it would be great to have a comprehensive review of the state of paleoclimatology and paleogeochemistry. But Dr. Everett ignores what we already know about those topics- so what good would such an effort be?

Suggestion #2:

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A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I - II.0 - II.5 - II.75 -  III.0 - III.3 - IV.0 - IV.4 - IV.8 - V - VII - VIII - Full Report 

We’ve seen that Dr. Everett’s discussion of paleogeochemistry fails to consider both rates of change and the geological record of ocean acidification. There is one last talking point in this section which requires comment:

“From 50-600 million years ago, atmospheric CO2 levels were usually 2-20 times higher than at present. [...] This included the age of the dinosaurs, when life was so prolific that we still use its carbon, limestone and chalk.”

Limestone and chalk, like corals and coccoliths, are made out of calcium carbonate. Many deposits of calcium carbonate occurred when there was much more carbon dioxide in the air. The Cretaceous is named after chalk deposits like the White Cliffs of Dover; CO2 levels during the Cretaceous were over 1000 ppm, compared to current levels around 390 ppm. If the ocean deposited calcium carbonate en masse during the high-CO2 Cretaceous, why should we expect it to become hostile to carbonates now?

The chalk cliffs of Dover, massive deposits of calcium carbonate from the high-CO2 Cretaceous. Is this a paradox? Not really. Click for sauce.

The answer lies, again, in time scales.

Over short time scales, like those on which acidification is currently occurring, the saturation state of calcium carbonate is determined by pH, which is controlled by CO2. However, on longer time scales, it’s controlled by another factor. As this article explains:

“Hence, the key, but rather counterintuitive result, is that on long time scales, ocean pH and atmospheric CO2 are decoupled from carbonate mineral saturation state, which is dictated primarily by weathering (in conjunction with the major cation [Ca2+, Mg2+] content of the ocean). Actually, saturation is not entirely decoupled geologically from pH and CO2, as all things being equal, at high CO2 (and a warmer climate), enhanced weathering requires higher carbonate burial and hence higher ocean saturation. Thus, the presence of “carbonate factories” with widespread CaCO3 production and burial is entirely consitent with a high CO2, low pH world. [...] Only in significant and geologically “rapid” departures from steady-state carbon cycling will both pH and saturation fall together…” (my emphasis)

In other words, over a long timeline, it’s the calcium that determines calcium carbonate favorability. Over short timelines, it’s the pH- and CO2 emissions are altering the pH on a short timeline.

A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I - II.0 - II.5 - II.75 -  III.0 - III.3 - IV.0 - IV.4 - IV.8 - V - VII - VIII - Full Report 

Last time we looked at Dr. Everett’s testimony, we examined his claim that, because carbon dioxide levels have been higher in the past, increasing levels are not alarming now. His argument is flawed, because although CO2 levels have changed, they usually change only very slowly. Now, they’re changing abruptly. Graphs of Deep Time can be intuitively misleading, because they collapse time scales and it can be hard to compare the rates of change from one image to the next. For example, this next graph shows information that we have gathered from looking at  gasses trapped in Antarctic ice. It’s obvious that the climate changes over Deep Time- but is it obvious from this graph how historical rates of change compare to modern rates?

Paleoclimatic and paleogeochemical data gathered from the Vostok ice core. Temperature (red) and carbon dioxide (blue) go up and down on these time scales - but its the rate that really matters. Click for sauce.

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A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I - II.0 - II.5 - II.75 -  III.0 - III.3 - IV.0 - IV.4 - IV.8 - V - VII - VIII - Full Report 

People who minimize or deny the threat of climate change (or ocean acidification, as in part IV of Dr. Everett’s testimony) will often demand that the change be “unprecedented” – that nothing like it has ever happened before in Earth history. (eg, here) The reasoning seems to be that if there have been ecological events like anthropogenic climate change in the past, then current events must not be alarming, since life on earth has each time survived and recovered:

“We know that the Earth has seen these conditions before, and that all the same types of animals and plants of the oceans successfully made it through far more extreme conditions. ” – Everertt (part V)


This has always seemed to me like it’s setting the bar a bit low: Do we only become alarmed when faced with the possibility of sterilizing the planet? And considering the amount of violence which earth life has withstood over the ages, it doesn’t seem a very strong statement that human impact is unlikely to wipe it out.

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A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I - II.0 - II.5 - II.75 -  III.0 - III.3 - IV.0 - IV.4 - IV.8 - V - VII - VIII - Full Report 

Often, in order to explain why a particular Weird Belief is correct despite being at odds with available evidence, the belief holder will invoke conspiracy theories. Young Earth Creationists often invoke a conspiracy by god and/or satan to make the earth look much older than it actually is. Intelligent Design Creationists allege an academic conspiracy to suppress ID research. Climate change skuptiks see conspiracies to falsify data the way I see faces in clouds. It’s not necessarily that conspiracies don’t exist- but because the point of a conspiracy is to mask its own existence, we have to be very careful in deciding which conspiracy theories are justified and which aren’t.

Dr. Everett doesn’t invoke a conspiracy in the classical sense of a bunch of men in suits, smoking cigars in a dimly lit room. But he does seem to invoke a distributed, systemic conspiracy, in which science as a system has been corrupted, and its results can not be trusted. He does this in order to cast doubt on studies of the effects of acidification on calcifiers:

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A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I - II.0 - II.5 - II.75 -  III.0 - III.3 - IV.0 - IV.4 - IV.8 - V - VII - VIII - Full Report 

Coccoliths: microscopic death stars of the ocean. Via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever gone camping with someone who doesn’t know how to build a fire? It might go something like this: you get a pile of twigs burning, and immediately your friend starts piling on huge logs. The fire dwindles. “Hey,” your friend says, “This fire sucks. It must need more logs.” If some fuel is good, then more must be better. It’s a terrible way to roast marshmallows. And yet it’s the philosophy that Dr. Everett applies to the effects of increased carbon dioxide on life.

Here’s an example from part I of his testimony:

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A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I - II.0 - II.5 - II.75 -  III.0 - III.3 - IV.0 - IV.4 - IV.8 - V - VII - VIII - Full Report 

The last couple posts looked at Dr. Everett’s discussion of the growth rate of carbon dioxide. There’s one other claim in this section which warrants inspection: that a constant airborne fraction is a challenge to projected acidification.

I got the bright idea to sudo rm -rf in my /etc/ and now GIMP is broken. So none of my sweet graphics this episode. Instead here's a diagram of the carbon cycle, courtesy of NASA (click for sauce.) It's just as well. The coolest thing I could think to draw was some pictures of pie. Mmmm pie.

Here’s what he has to say:

The meaning of this information [the supposed leveling off of CO2 growth rate] (and the future of all climate models[)] became VERY cloudy on 31 December 2009 with the ScienceDaily acknowledgment of a paper published by American Geophysical Union and authored by Wolfgang Knorr that shows “No Rise of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Fraction in Past 160 Years”, despite the predictions of carbon cycle/climate models3. The implications of this have yet to be assimilated by the modeling community. This does not mean that CO2 proportion is not rising but rather that the proportion not being assimilated has not changed since 1850. Importantly, it means that the rate of CO2 cycling increases as it becomes more concentrated, and does not decrease as assumed in climate models. The rate of projected growth in CO2 appears to be greatly exaggerated.

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