Writing the Backwash with R. H. Sheldon
Ocean Acidification: We Need to Make It Sexier
About six years ago, I pitched an article about ocean acidification to the editors at several environmental magazines. The article was supposed to explain how the oceans’ pH levels were dropping because the seawater was absorbing more carbon dioxide than it had in millions of years. Such chemical changes, the article would point out, could have a significant impact on the organisms that rely on the oceans to survive, including landlubbing organisms like us.
For the most part, the editors showed little interest in the topic, except for one at Orion. He responded to my query with a request that I tweak my proposal and resubmit it. I did, but I never heard back from him.
Since then, I’ve seen several articles about ocean acidification in various publications, but the subject never sticks around for very long, not compared to such buzz-generating topics as global warming and climate change.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad when any environmental issue gets at least some coverage, given how the mainstream media, particularly here in the US, like to downplay such issues by wrapping their stories in a cloak of objectivity. (I call it the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome—media moguls and celebrity journalists get to pat themselves on the back for coverage they claim to be fair and balanced, while raking in loads of cash and playing into the hands of big business and big-pocketed politicians.)
Yet among certain factions, stories about the climate play big, and despite the media’s questionable costumery, there has emerged at least some acknowledgment among mainstream news outlets that climate-related issues are perhaps something worth noting, especially in light of our record temperatures and diminishing fields of ice.
But ocean acidification does not garner nearly as much attention. It’s not as sexy as climate change—not so in your face. The impacts of climate change, after all, can already be observed in the growing heat waves and increasing droughts and shrinking glaciers and rising oceans and spreading deserts. We might pretend that nothing is happening, but even in our myopic condition, we can’t help but admit that something is going on.
Yet the planet’s sister condition, ocean acidification, is much easier to ignore. The ocean is like a cat. She might seem okay on the outside, but an insidious disease eats away at her guts.
That’s exactly what’s happening to our oceans. Because of the enormous amounts of CO2 they’ve been absorbing, the water is chemically changing and becoming more acidic. What’s more, the oceans are sucking up more gas than ever and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there’s been a 30% increase in acidity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. At the rate we’re currently pumping CO2 into the atmosphere—much of which the oceans are absorbing—seawater could end up 150% more acidic by the end of the century, a pH level comparable to what the planet saw 20 million years ago, a level that promises to play hell on our seafaring creatures.
When the oceans become more acidic, the shells of calcifying species—such as coral, oysters, and calcareous plankton—start to dissolve. The critters inside those shells, now finding themselves homeless, inevitably start to decline, which can put the ocean’s entire food web at risk.
Consider this. An estimated one million species depend on coral reef habitat. If the reefs start eroding faster than they can be rebuilt, all life that depends on those reefs could be threatened, and so too could all life that depends on those species. That includes the billion or more people worldwide who every day rely on the oceans for their primary source of protein.
Even if we were to stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere today, the oceans would continue to absorb the excess gas. A good thing in at least one respect. Without seawater doing what seawater does, we’d be living on a planet significantly hotter than it already is. But such a mechanism doesn’t bode well for the oceans themselves.
What we need is a PR firm to take on ocean acidification, professionals who can package the issue in a way that makes it sleek and scintillating enough to catch the media’s attention. We need an advertising blitz that ranges from Superbowl commercials to clever product placements in Hollywood blockbusters—perhaps a futuristic sci-fi about oceans with no coral or fish or penguins. Only plastic.
After all, if we can make Ralph Lauren and Tiger Woods and Lady Gaga media events, why not the destruction of our oceans?
Maybe such a campaign is already underway. This past July, for example, The Huffington Post ran an article about ocean acidification on their illustrious home page. What better place to kick off such a campaign? The Post knows all about making news sweet and sexy.
Perhaps the article marks the beginning of a growing trend. Perhaps ocean acidification will become as common a concern as climate change. Perhaps we’re on our way to T-shirts and bumper stickers and TV shows about oceanographers. Better still, perhaps together, the issues of ocean acidification and climate change will more effectively remind everyone of the critical position we’ve placed ourselves—along with all the other living species on this planet.
I hope so. Without a rapid reduction in our carbon output, the oceans, like the rest of the world’s ecosystems, will take a great fall. And no PR firm or mega-media tabloid will be able to put them back together again.