A tiny ray of hope

Those of you who read this blog know that I often post on issues related to global warming and the environment. In general, I think most environmental scientists have a pretty pessimistic view of the state of things to come and the challenges we’re going to be facing over the next 50 years, largely due to the magnitude and variety of impacts related to global warming, along with many unrelated issues.

One of the scary things that hasn’t really gotten into the public consciousness yet is the acidification of the oceans. The CO2 we’re adding into the atmosphere is counterbalanced somewhat by the ocean, which acts as a giant reservoir into which some of the CO2 can dissolve. Unfortunately, when it does so, the oceans become more acidic. The amount of CO2 that has been added to the oceans has already started to tip the balance, and there are measurable changes in pH. This process also reduces carbonate in seawater, which makes up coral reefs and the exoskeletons of small organisms important at the base of the oceanic food chain.

I know you’re still waiting for the ray of hope, so here it is. There’s a fascinating short article in Science (Mar 30 2007) which describes an experiment in which a variety of corals were exposed to more acidic ocean water, to see what would happen. The fossil record suggests that corals have survived periods of global warming in past geologic history, but no-one was quite sure how. It turns out that in fact the corals do lose their skeletons, and the little critters inside have their soft bodies exposed.

Astonishingly, they can live that way. They seem to grow and thrive perfectly well, as long as they are attached to a hard rock that doesn’t dissolve. We would still lose the coral reefs and all the structural diversity they provide, but the living beings in the coral would survive. And the research showed that once things get back to normal again – the critters build their little exoskeletons and the coral rebuilds itself. !!

I for one found this pretty amazing. Of course there are still 900 other things that can and will go wrong, but it’s just such a relentless tide of bad news that it’s wonderful to see one little part of the ecosystem that can adapt.


4 thoughts on “A tiny ray of hope

  1. Coppermoon says:

    I will take the tiny bit of good news and rejoice! Thank you!

  2. Mike says:

    On a geologic time scale, we humans are very likely going to be extinct, just like the other 99.9% of all species that have existed on this planet. On a cosmic time scale, this planet will inevitably be reduced to dust, or crushed by a black hole into a burst of gamma rays, or some equally harsh and seemingly inescapable fate.

    Unless we become smart enough to find a way to survive. To begin with, we must find a way not to destroy our own habitat, or change it to the point that we cannot survive. Saving the Earth is of course really about saving ourselves.

    I just finished reading Michio Kaku’s “Parallel Worlds”. A review of what we know about cosmology (Newton through Einstein, and to string theory). Reading cosmology tends to put things into perspective, though it can be pretty bleak realizing how insignificant and (probably) ephemeral we humans are. Even if we can save ourselves from our own self-destructive activities, we will eventually have to survive an asteroid impact, perhaps a black hole, perhaps a nearby supernova, and in the distant future, cosmic entropy. The odds are very long, in my very, very humble opinion.

    I hope this isn’t too much of a bummer!


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