Today's title refers to the world's oceans, and was taken from Oceans' rising acidity a threat to shellfish — and humans.
The world's oceans have become 30% more acidic since the Industrial Revolution began more than two centuries ago. In that time, the seas have absorbed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide that has built up in the atmosphere, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.
By taking in that amount — more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gas that has accumulated in the atmosphere — the oceans have buffered the full effects of climate change, scientists say: Temperatures have not risen as much as they would have otherwise, glaciers haven't melted as fast. Yet the benefits are coming at a cost to marine life, especially oysters, clams and corals that rely on the minerals in alkaline seawater to build their protective shells and exoskeletons. The ill effects of the changing chemistry only add to the oceans' problems, which include warming temperatures and expanding low-oxygen "dead zones."
By the end of the century, said French biological oceanographer Jean-Pierre Gattuso, "The oceans will become hot, sour and breathless."
If Jean-Pierre Gattuso is right, in one hundred years ocean waters will be much hotter (as the Earth warms), sour (sulfidic, containing toxic hydrogen sulfide, H2S), and breathless (anoxic, lacking oxygen, with huge dead zones). Marine species more complex than bacteria would either be extinct, on their way to becoming extinct, or threatened with extinction. (Local conditions would vary.) The great Permian Extinction (about 251 million years ago) likely saw the rise of a hot, sour and breathless ocean, but did not wipe out all higher marine life, which is one reason (among a multitude of reasons) why we exist.
Gattuso seems to be referring to ocean conditions which held sway for about a billion years ("the boring billion") during the mid-Proterozoic, from about 1.85 to 0.85 billion years ago. Hot, sour and breathless conditions are called a Canfield Ocean, after the Danish researcher Donald Canfield, who published a seminal 1998 paper in Nature called A new model for Proterozoic ocean chemistry.
Is Gattuso resorting to hyperbole in asserting that we will be moving toward some version of the Canfield Ocean by the year 2100? For a variety or reasons, I don't know and can't know. But you can obviously see what the stakes are—this is the entire living world we're talking about, a possible mass extinction event broadly similar to the Big Five (the Ordovician, the Devonian, the Permian, the end-Triassic, the Cretaceous, or K-T event).
Perhaps Gattuso is right about the outcome but wrong about the timing. We might see something like a Canfield Ocean in 200 years, or 500 years, or 1000 years. How much difference does that make? On the Geological time scale, not much, it makes hardly any difference at all. Events occurring within the next 1000 years are invisible on the Geological time scale, although a Mass Extinction would be visible to future paleontologists, if there are any. On the paleoanthropolgical time scale, which encompasses the last 6-7 million years, the visibility in the record of the rocks is only slightly better.
One thousand years ago, in the year 1012, here's some stuff that was happening in England, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles—
This year came Alderman Edric, and all the oldest counsellors of England, clerk and laity, to London before Easter, which was then on the ides of April; and there they abode, over Easter, until all the tribute was paid, which was 48,000 pounds.
Then on the Saturday was the army much stirred against the bishop; because he would not promise them any fee, and forbade that any man should give anything for him. They were also much drunken; for there was wine brought them from the south. Then took they the bishop, and led him to their hustings, on the eve of the Sunday after Easter, which was the thirteenth before the calends of May; and there they then shamefully killed him. They overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow; and his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God.
The corpse in the morning was carried to London; and the bishops, Ednoth and Elfhun, and the citizens, received him with all honour, and buried him in St. Paul's minster; where God now showeth this holy martyr's miracles. When the tribute was paid, and the peace- oaths were sworn, then dispersed the army as widely as it was before collected. Then submitted to the king five and forty of the ships of the enemy; and promised him, that they would defend this land, and he should feed and clothe them.
If Gattuso is right about the future oceans, and it takes us a thousand years to get there, drunken louts in the English army of 1012 won't be having that kind of wicked fun—smacking the recalcitrant, tight-fisted bishop upside the head with an axe fashioned from iron, thereby shamefully snuffing him out—in the year 3012.
You can readily see that 1000 years is not so much time, even in human history. See my post Let's Talk About Time And Decline.
I wrote this brief comment about possible future outcomes in the oceans in anticipation of tomorrow's post, in which I will talk about a recent PBS series called Saving The Ocean featuring host Carl Safina. Needless to say, I am not happy about it. Not at all happy. Really, really pissed off, in fact.
My most recent post on this subject was called The Coming Mass Extinction In The Oceans. I also recently wrote about shifting baselines in perceptions of ocean health (click on Jeremy Jackson below). You can find some of my other posts about human destruction of marine ecosystems by running the following Google queries—
And here's Jeremy Jackson talking about how humans are fucking up the oceans. Until tomorrow, too-da-loo!