Ocean Acidification Testimony

Oral Statement By


HEARING ON The Environmental and Economic Impacts of Ocean Acidification before the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation United States Senate April 22, 2010


Mister Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me. Thirty years ago, I worked for this Committee handling oceans and fisheries issues. I sat behind you then and behind me later, supporting agency management. This is my first time at this table.

Hearing the panelists before me, I will be swimming against the flow. What I will present will raise questions. I assure you I have received no money from any sources for my climate change work.

My approach to impact analysis is a product of my education and work at NOAA and for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I led IPCC work on five impact analyses: Fisheries, Polar Regions, Oceans, and Oceans and Coastal Zones (2 reports).

Since leaving NOAA, I have been an IPCC expert reviewer and have maintained climate and other subjects in the UN Atlas of the Oceans, where I am the Chief Editor and Project Manager.

I am also President of Ocean Associates, Inc., an oceans and fisheries consulting business with 70 people in 6 states. I also have a website called ClimateChangeFacts.info where I try to keep track of and share all the latest information about climate change.

I have focused on seven concerns about ocean acidification including that marine life might lose the ability to make shells and existing shells will become weaker, and that the loss of shell-forming plants and animals will reduce food for those higher in the food chain.

These concerns are based on the work of respected scientists who believe increased CO2 will dangerously increase acidification. They use IPCC scenarios developed in the early 1990s. Other respected scientists believe that the scenarios have been overtaken by events. For example, the cost of fuels is rising, and science shows the Earth’s ability to absorb CO2 has not diminished.

Importantly, oceans are alkaline - not acidic. If all the CO2 in the air were put into the ocean, the oceans would still be alkaline. We need to reassure bathers, and scuba divers, that their feet will not dissolve when they step in the water.

Mr. Chairman, a puddle of rainwater, or a handful of snow, is 100 times more acidic than the ocean waters will ever be.

I have reviewed the IPCC and more recent scientific literature and believe that there is not a problem with increased acidification, even up to the unlikely levels in the most-used IPCC scenarios. This assessment is due to 4 primary factors: First, laboratory work shows there is no basis to predict the demise of shelled plants and animals living in the sea. The animals above them in the food chain will still find food. There are two noteworthy papers. In the first, Woods Hole Oceanographic researchers Justin Ries et al. found that crabs, shrimp and lobsters build more shell when exposed to acidification and that hard clams and corals slowed formation of shells at very high CO2 levels, while soft clams and oysters did so at lower levels. None of the shells dissolved, but grew slower at unrealistically high CO2. Secondly, Iglesias-Rodriguez et al. found that calcification and production in an important shelled planktonic plant are significantly increased by high CO2. Thus, the science actually indicates plants, crustaceans, and shelled algae plankton will be more successful. Since they are at or near the bottom of the food chain, this is good news.

Second, the Earth has been this route before. Whether or not laboratory studies provide the answers we think are reasonable, we need to look more broadly. Russian academicians (on their National Academy of Sciences) taught me to look at how the Earth responded in past eras when conditions were like those projected. They gravely distrusted computer models.

So, what can we learn from the past and what we see around us? The oceans have been far warmer and far colder and more acidic than is projected. During the millennia, marine life endured and responded to CO2 many times higher than present, and to temperatures that put tropical plants at the poles or covered our land by thick ice. The memory of these events is built into the genes of all species.

Virtually all ecological niches have been filled at all times. If someone could demonstrate that there were no corals, clams, oysters, or shelled plankton when there was double or triple the amount of CO2, I would be concerned. The opposite is true.

Third, observational data show no harm. IPCC concluded (prior to the Iglesias-Rodriguez paper) that there is no observational evidence of oceanic changes due to acidification. There is also nothing conclusive in the recent research to indicate any reason for concern.

Lastly, natural changes are greater and faster than those projected. Major warming, cooling, and pH changes in the oceans are a fact of life. Whether over a few years as in an El Niño, over decades as in the Pacific Oscillation, or over a few hours as a burst of upwelling appears or a storm brings acidic rainwater to an estuary. Despite severe and rapid changes that far exceed those in the scenarios, the biology adapts rapidly. The 0.1 change in ocean alkalinity since 1750 and the one degree F. rise since 1860 are but noise in this rapidly changing system. In the face of all these natural changes, whether over days or millennia, some species flourish while others diminish.

With no laboratory or observational evidence of biological disruption, I see no economic disruption of commercial and recreational fisheries, nor harm to marine mammals, sea turtles or any other protected species. Whichever response the US takes, our actions should be prudent.

Our research should focus on understanding those ecosystem linkages needed to wisely manage our fisheries, and conserve our protected species. This includes research to explore further the possible acidification effects, as wisely envisioned with the funds recently made available to NOAA.

I would be pleased to answer questions.


This page updated or reviewed in January 2012