Twisting words bends nature out of shape

A NZ Herald headline today blares “Oceans’ acidity threatening coral and mussel survival”, making us imagine reefs and shellfish beginning to fight for their lives. The article begins:

Rising carbon dioxide levels are increasing acidity in the oceans faster than scientists thought, posing a greater threat to shell-forming creatures such as coral and mussels.

An eight-year project in the Pacific has found that rising marine acid levels will challenge many organisms, because their shell-making chemistry is critically dependent on a less acidic, more alkaline environment.

The study monitored seawater pH levels at the northeast Pacific island of Tatoosh off Washington state in the United States.

Notice how the scope of this alarmist item contracts dramatically from “oceans” in the headline, to “the Pacific” in the second paragraph, to “an island” in the third paragraph. That’s an important point: the scientists haven’t been studying the whole ocean, just one bit of it.

If a scientist claims to know what is happening in the whole ocean after studying a single island, should we award him a medal or just smile politely and agree to humour him?

The original press release from the University of Chicago reveals the authors in fact make no such claims. Catherine Pfister, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Chicago and a co-author of the study, says “the increased acidity of the ocean could interfere with many critical ocean processes such as coral reef building or shellfish harvesting.”

Which sounds reasonable.

Timothy Wootton, the lead author and Professor of Ecology and Evolution, says “These data… suggest that our understanding of ocean pH may be incomplete.”

Which sounds extremely reasonable. Not to labour the point, but it is distinctly out of step with the Herald’s headline trumpeting “acidity threatens survival”.

It’s normal to find great variability in ocean characteristics such as temperature, salinity and acidity from place to place, so Wootton is sensible to suggest further studies. There is a comment from another academic, Richard Zeebe, that Tatoosh Island “experiences a great deal of upwelling, so it’s not completely surprising to find changes in acidity.” Which is cause for caution in interpreting Wootton’s findings. Caution to which the Herald pays no heed.

The natural world is again revealed as more complex than appears when we try to view it through the single-issue lens of man-made-carbon-dioxide-induced dangerous global warming.

I’m becoming weary of the hollow drama from the Herald on global warming issues and I will continue to prick their arrogant little bubbles.

But my fellow Kiwis are not complaining about the continuing biased journalism. Do they like fake drama, or are they simply not paying attention?

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2 Thoughts on “Twisting words bends nature out of shape

  1. Barry Brill on 03/01/2010 at 1:32 pm said:

    Extract from Monckton’s response to Scientific American:

    “Ocean acidification arising from the relatively modest increases in CO2 concentration that we might be able to achieve is impossible.

    “Here, as elsewhere in the climate debate, it is useful to keep a sense of due proportion. When did the calcite corals – the very earliest species – first originate? In the Cambrian era, when CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, according to the UN’s climate panel, was 20 times today’s. When did the more delicate and vulnerable aragonite corals originate? In the Jurassic era, when CO2 concentration was around 15 times today’s. Were the oceans appreciably more acidic than today’s. No.

    “Here is why ocean acidification will not be a problem in our own time.

    “There is 70 times as much CO2 in the oceans as there is in the atmosphere. Suppose we double today’s concentration of CO2, which is what the UN predicts will happen on the business-as-usual scenario. An amount equivalent to [a] third of what we put into the atmosphere will also accumulate in the oceans. In short, if we do nothing whatever to mitigate our CO2 emissions, one-third of 1/70 of the existing oceanic concentration will be added. That is less than half of one per cent of the CO2 already in today’s oceans.

    “And how much CO2 is in today’s oceans? Only 0.025 per cent…. We’ll be adding just about 1 part per million to the proportion of the entire oceans that is represented by CO2. This is where a sense of due proportion comes in useful. That is simply too small an amount to make the slightest difference to the oceans.”

  2. He always adds something useful, doesn’t he? It’s noticeable that context and perspective consistently sabotage efforts to raise the alarm over climate. Those who would peddle climatic dismay must obscure part of the situation to be successful.

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