Global Warming - NOAA Ocean Acidification Video

In February 2014, I took an online "class" in Global Warming. (Mostly anti-science propaganda, though a few lectures were pretty good.)

For Week 5: The Impacts of Climate Change - Lesson Ten: Impacts of Climate Change, one of the "Optional Activities" was to watch the NOAA Ocean Acidification Demonstration video which was originally posted Feb 26, 2010, on YouTube - as I write this page, it has 12,843 views. (14,500 as of 11-13-14)

This is not just some fly-by-night video by some wacko, but an official NOAA video, presented by the head of NOAA, and posted on the NOAA YouTube channel! I decided to write this page because of what I thought was a pretty obvious error - it turned out that I was wrong, but, with additional research, another error was discovered.

(The two links above will require a free account - though I expect they will quit working shortly after the "course" ends.)

Watch the Video First | Overview | Calcium Carbonate | Lobsters | Coral as an example | Two Demonstrations | Sea Butterflies | Ocean Acidity | Summary

Watch the Video First

In my opinion, the NOAA Ocean Acidification Demonstration video is non-science at the highest level - it contains blatantly wrong information. In addition, there is a considerable amount of highly misleading information.

Before reading the rest of this page, I strongly suggest that you view the video! I really don't want to influence your opinion before you see it.


The presenter is Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator (the head of the NOAA, appointed by the US President) from 2009 to 2013. In the video, she refers to ocean acidification due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere as and makes her position on Anthropogenic Global Warming very clear when she refers to CO2 as a I obviously don't agree with her assessments, but this page is focused on just the science as presented in the video.

Calcium Carbonate

(Some background information not in the video.)

Calcium carbonate - CaCO3 - occurs in several different crystal forms (polymorphs). The following table describes 2 of them.

In biological systems, such as shells, aragonite is the common form, though some shells have alternating layers of aragonite and calcite.


In the video, Dr. Lubchenco says

Based on my education, her statement was wrong!

Well, I was wrong. Continuing from Wikipedia,

Well, lobsters are crustaceans, a subphylum of arthropoda. It turns out that Dr. Lubchenco is partially correct when she says that lobsters and crabs have calcium carbonate shells. I had no idea that lobsters have calcium carbonate in their shells, or that mollusk shells contain chitin. However, she is wrong to suggest that increased CO2 in the atmosphere will cause their shells to dissolve.

Specifically, this article

clearly states While some organisms with thick shells lose mass at higher CO2 concentrations, other organisms increased shell mass. In particular, the three species of Crustaceans - the blue crab, American lobster, and a large prawn - grew heavier shells as CO2 concentration increased.

Even though some shells loss mass, all the test organisms continued to create new shell material, even at the highest test level - about 2,800 parts per million (ppm) of CO2.

The IPCC AR5 (2014) worst case scenario (RPC8.5 - click the plus signs to see the data) places CO2 at about 936 ppm by 2100. The more likely guess, as stated in the paper, is about 600 ppm.

Note: The reference was published June 1, 2010 - several months after the video was made.
Note: RCP - Representative Concentration Pathway - just a guess used to build models.

Coral as an example

As mentioned above, when referring to mollusks and lobsters, Dr. Lubchenco says Then she continues with the following example. I actually don't disagree with any of that. The problem is that no amount of anthropogenic CO2 will ever make the oceans acidic. Later, she states that Good try, but that doesn't cover it. She has already made a point that lobsters and crabs will be hurt by "ocean acidification" which we know is a false statement.

Two Demonstrations

In the video, there are 2 demonstrations The science is absolutely sound. Anyone can repeat these experiments and get similar results.

However, it is what's not said and what's implied that is a problem.

Demonstration 1

[05:03 to 06:35 in the video]

Fresh water has a pH of 7 - meaning that it is neutral. Using a blue indicator to show relative pH, she adds dry ice (solid CO2) and the indicator changes from blue to yellow - proving that CO2 reduces the pH and makes a neutral solution acidic.

What she didn't point out is that the current atmospheric CO2 mixing ratio is about 400 ppm, and that the amount of CO2 in the demonstration was about 1,000,000 ppm (one million parts per million). The implication for most viewers is that a little CO2 (it was a small piece of dry ice) will make a big change in pH.

In addition, sea water is not fresh water. It isn't that sea water is basic (not neutral) that matters, it is that sea water contains lots of calcium and that it is in equilibrium with existing calcium carbonate deposits (shells, coral, limestone, and the like). As a result, the sea is a buffered solution, meaning that the pH is fairly stable over a wide change in available CO2.

Demonstration 2

[06:35 to 09:17 in the video]

The "purpose" of this demonstration was to dramatize the fact that calcium carbonate (sea shells) dissolves faster as the solution becomes more acidic. She prepared 3 glasses and placed a stick of chalk - CaCO3 - in each.

To her credit, she said that "the ocean will never be as acidic as the vinegar we used here". However, she did not say that the sea will never be as acidic as the neutral tap water. And she did not mention anything about how the ocean buffers the reactions. In particular, she never said what the pH of the various solutions was. As a teaching moment, understanding the differences in pH would have been very useful. In particular, it would have been useful to see how the pH changes as the chalk dissolved.

According to Wikipedia, household vinegar has a pH of about 2.4.

Kids watching this video will get the impression that "carbon pollution" will make sea shells dissolve - which is what was intended. However, this demonstration simply showed that calcium carbonate (sea shells) dissolves in acid and missed the opportunity to introduce buffers and to explain some of the complexities of ocean chemistry.

It is interesting that as she placed the chalk in the neutral water (pH 7.0), she said

Based on that, I see no reason to worry about a little CO2 since the ocean will never get that acidic!

Demonstration Summary

[08:53 to 09:19 in the video]

She does make it very clear that the ocean chemistry is quite different from the two demonstrations. She explains that vinegar was used just to speed things up. Her 2 main points are

Both of which are correct.

Sea Butterflies

[09:23 to 10:34 in the video] - pteropod clip starts at 10:09

Dr. Lubchenco continues the presentation by observing that the previous demonstrations were chemical and that this one will be biological. To show the effect of CO2 on oceans worldwide, she showed a clip of a living pteropod - sea butterfly - swimming, and the shell of a dead pteropod dissolving over a period of 45 days in sea water that has the same acidity (meaning that it is really basic) as projected for 2100, assuming nothing is done to change the amount of CO2 produced by humans.

The effect is pretty dramatic and pretty scary. (I just wanted to cry.) It reminds me of the experiment kids do - placing a tooth in soda and seeing how it just rots away. That does not convince many people to quit drinking soda, and this pteropod video should have about the same effect.

Pteropods are small swimming mollusks that form a large part of the ocean food chain. And Dr. Lubchenco is correct that disrupting that chain will have major impacts. However, she failed to mention that the pteropods are part of a larger group of free swimming mollusks and that many of them have no shells at all.

Looking at one dead shell isn't science. In science, you have to look at the entire ecosystem. If other, very similar, organisms are living without shells, then a change in ocean chemistry may have no effect at all on the food chain - as one organism has problems surviving, another might do better. Overall, the total amount of fish food might increase, decrease, or stay the same. It is possible that a lower pH (a less basic environment) will cause more calcium to be recycled and for the ocean to become even more productive.

So, in my opinion, a video showing a dead shell dissolving is worthless. At least show a similar shell in current sea water as a control! A better video would also show living organisms in both environments.

Life over comes many thermodynamically prohibited chemical reactions. To use a dead, decaying, organism to suggest anything about how the ecological system will respond is anti-science! Period!

Actually, the Smithsonian agrees with me - they report that changes in ocean acidity appear to have only a minor impact on sea butterflies, and that small temperature changes have a much larger effect.

Note: I found still shots from the pteropod video on a number of web pages - they are credited as - (Photo credit: David Liittschwager/National Geographic Stock). However, I was not able to find the source for the original video.

Comparison of living pteropods

A separate NOAA video - The Effects of Ocean Acidification on Pteropod Shells - compares living organisms in sea water at "current" (unspecified) levels of CO2 and at 1600 ppm - way beyond what is expected by 2100. From the related April 30, 2014 press release While that sounds pretty bad, the press release implies Then it blames the problem on current CO2 levels. Well, that is obvious nonsense - if current CO2 was causing this, then the "problem" would not be seasonal and affected by upwelling water. In fact, the upwelling water should reduce the problem, not make it worse! The related abstract (the article is paywalled) claims that while atmospheric CO2 levels have only doubled, the aragonite undersaturation of the ocean has increased sixfold (6 times).

A similar November 25, 2012 press release claims that the pteropods near Antarctica have the same problem with upwelling water.

In both cases, it is water coming up from depth that is causing the problem. Upwelling water generally occurs when deep currents encounter a contenental shelf. One theory is that the deep water was last at the surface from 50 to 200 years ago (depending on the shelf it encounters) and that modern changes in CO2 will not be seen for another 100 years or so. However, both papers claim that the upwelling is seasonal, caused by wind, and that current CO2 levels are already affecting these deep waters.

Both studies also imply that we know what the conditions were over 100 years ago However, it is my opinion that there is no way we have enough data to make that claim. I checked the references from another source, and the hundred year ago values were based on a model.

Ocean Acidity

The video continues with an animation showing the change in global ocean acidity from 1775 to 2100. Really? We don't know what the acidity was in 1960. We barely have an idea of what it is today.

From 1775 ?? I don't think so!

Then she claims

Really?? At the end of the last ice age, about 10 thousand years ago, there was a major pulse in the environment - the Younger Dryas. Over a very short period, perhaps only 100 years, the whole planet cooled significantly. The current theory is that a large, very cold, fresh water lake (Lake Agassiz) suddenly drained into the ocean. If true, and there is a significant amount of evidence, the ocean pH would have changed much faster than anything humans may have done simply because fresh water lakes are acidic and the ocean is basic.

Not specifically related to the Younger Dryas, but since the end of the last glaciation (about 20 thousand years ago), sea levels have risen about 400 feet - that's a lot of fresh, acidic, water. Granted, that may have occurred over a few thousand years - but it did happen.

So, basically, I reject her claim of - worst in 20 million years - as irrelevant. Much larger changes have happened in the much more recent past, and to imply otherwise is not very scientific.


Well, lies of omission are still lies!

In this case, it is my opinion that NOAA, the primary source of scientific knowledge about the oceans, has intentionally lied to the people. I understand that this is a complex subject and that no 14 minute video will ever be able to cover most of the science. However, there could be a series of additional videos, all linked via their video descriptions, clarifying the issues I've pointed out above.

Just to be clear, in the US, one political party is attempting to control the production of CO2, and the other is resisting it. On January 20, 2009, President Obama (Democrat) took office and appointed Dr. Lubchenco, the presenter in this video, to be the head of NOAA. Since the video was published on YouTube February 26, 2010, while she was still the head of NOAA, it is understandable that she supports the party's position on controlling CO2.

Based on the facts I've seen, if CO2 changes the ocean's pH there will be winners and losers. So far, I have not seen a convincing case that the change will be a net loss. By reading between the lines, the argument appears to be

I hate to suggest that NOAA placed misleading "facts" in this video just to push a political agenda, but that is how it appears.

Author: Robert Clemenzi
URL: http:// / Global_Warming / NOAA_Ocean_Acidification_Video.html