No Heartburn Relief for Oceans

Not to be defeatist or anything, but it’s just possible that despite the good intentions of diplomats and the fond hopes of some reporters, the nations of the world might not end cutting their emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. That in turn could lead to all sorts of bad things, including dangerously rising seas along with an increase in droughts, heat waves, and torrential rainstorms.

Scientists believe that ocean acidification and rising temperatures are responsible for massive coral mortality in the world’s tropical oceans. Credit: wildsingapore/flickr

It could also lead to more acidic ocean water due to chemical changes as the seas absorb some of the extra carbon dioxide we’re creating. This so-called ocean acidification could be devastating to sea life. In fact, it may already be happening: the oceans are now 30% more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution began, and scientists think the combination of more acid and higher temperatures may be killing off corals in the world’s tropical oceans. If we can’t prevent it, some scientists think we could still fix the problem by dumping acid-neutralizing chemicals into the ocean (on a smaller scale, this is the essence of an old heartburn-relief technique: swallowing a mixture of baking soda and water to neutralize stomach acid.

It’s one form of the broader strategy known as geoengineering, or physically altering some major part of the earth to control climate. And it sounds good — until you do the numbers. A pair of scientists from the University of Hawaii did. Instead of baking soda, they used another inexpensive alkaline substance called quicklime (not in the actual ocean, but in a computer simulation). The bottom line as they explained at a recent geophysics conference : it would cost trillions of dollars each year to make a difference.

Even if you decided to go for it, moreover, you’d only be fixing the acidity: the ocean’s temperature would keep rising along with the air temperature. This is the flip side of the problem people raise about geoengineering to lower temperatures: fine, they say, but that doesn’t address ocean acidification.

Or maybe none of it’s fine. People have all sorts of brilliant ideas about how to fix a problem, only to cause a greater problem. Erosion along roads? Let’s plant kudzu!  Bees don’t make enough honey? Let’s crossbreed them!  It’s called the law of unintended consequences. In other words, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature