[Coral-List] Matt Ridley's article in the Wall Street Journal

Bill Allison allison.billiam at gmail.com
Thu Jan 12 05:53:52 EST 2012

“The noise is greater than the signal” (Ridley, 2012): A dissection of
a denier diatribe (Ridley, 2011. Taking Fears of Acid Oceans With a
Grain of Salt)

By: William Allison
January 12, 2012

Ridley’s article is a disingenuous attack on climate science. To this
end the author has artfully selected statements from peer-reviewed
articles, presented them out of context, and imputed meanings quite
different from those intended by the authors. These statements are
framed in an introduction comprising selected and unreferenced extreme
opinions about the consequences of acidification and nature of the
scientific enterprise. To illustrate the discrepancies between the
article and the source materials I have confronted the claims made
paragraph by paragraph with relevant passages from the source papers -
some are in plain sight in the abstracts.

Each paragraph dealt with is numbered sequentially followed by the
relevant findings of the studies alluded to. Where appropriate I have
made a few additional observations, but by and large the selections
speak for themselves. The discrepancies would have been easier to
discern had the papers used been transparently cited. As it is, I had
to painstakingly search for the sources using whatever clues were
available. My coverage of Ridley’s article is not intended to be
exhaustive, and except where they were irresistibly obtuse I have
ignored items I could not trace to source.

I do not contest the assertion that pollution and over-fishing are the
main causes of the decline of reefs to date, nor do I discuss these
issues. The mention of these factors in Ridley’s article seems like a
red herring intended to distract readers from what is primarily an
attack on the foundations of scientific research on climate change. In
the long run acidification seems likely to be an important factor
contributing to global change and inhibiting calcification including
coral reef growth. It is ironic that all of the studies alluded to by
Ridley conclude that ocean acidification is problematic but none of
them indulge in the shrill hyperbole Ridley attributes to the field,
an attribute more aptly applied to Ridley, 2012.

I may be accused of cherry-picking, an accusation I’ll let readers
familiar with and the authors of the papers in question adjudicate
upon. Evidence-based feedback is welcome.

Paragraph 1 & 2.
Ridley states: “The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N.
Veron, an Australian coral scientist, will be "nothing less than
catastrophic.... What were once thriving coral gardens that supported
the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black
bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."”

“This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has
called ocean acidification "the scariest environmental problem you've
never heard of." Sigourney Weaver, who narrated a film about the
issue, said that "the scientists are freaked out." The head of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls it global
warming's "equally evil twin."”

Comments on Paragraphs 1 & 2.
The introduction can be dismissed a rhetorical ploy intended to
characterize the underlying science as hysterical hyperbole. Read on,
or better still, read the papers and form your own conclusions about
who is misrepresenting the situation.

Paragraphs 3 & 4.
Ridley states: “But do the scientific data support such alarm? Last
month scientists at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography
and other authors published a study showing how much the pH level
(measuring alkalinity versus acidity) varies naturally between parts
of the ocean and at different times of the day, month and year.”

"On both a monthly and annual scale, even the most stable open ocean
sites see pH changes many times larger than the annual rate of
acidification," say the authors of the study, adding that because good
instruments to measure ocean pH have only recently been deployed,
"this variation has been under-appreciated." Over coral reefs, the pH
decline between dusk and dawn is almost half as much as the decrease
in average pH expected over the next 100 years. The noise is greater
than the signal.

Comments on Paragraphs 3 & 4.
Apparently several papers are alluded to. The assertions about coral
reef pH and noise:signal ratio represent the deliberate and hackneyed
denier conflation of short-term variation with long-term trend or
weather with climate. This conflation dominates Ridley’s thesis.

The material in quotation marks is selected from Hofmann et al., 2011.
That paper is considerably more nuanced, and the authors’ conclusions
much more moderate than represented by Ridley. In fact the authors
seem to perceive ocean acidification is a real threat. The following
two paragraphs supporting my contention are verbatim from page 7 of
the paper:

“Instead, such a range of variation may mean that the organisms
resident in tidal, estuarine, and upwelling regions are already
operating at the limits of their physiological tolerances (a la the
classic tolerance windows of Fox – see [68]). Thus, future
acidification, whether it be atmospheric or from other sources, may
drive the physiology of these organisms closer to the edges of their
tolerance windows. When environmental change is layered upon their
present-day range of environmental exposures, they may thereby be
pushed to the ‘‘guardrails’’ of their tolerance [20,68].”

“These environmental patterns of pH suggest that reef organisms may be
acclimatized to consistent but moderate changes in the carbonate
system. Coral reefs have been at the center of research regarding the
effects of OA on marine ecosystems [71–73]. Along with the
calcification biology of the dominant scleractinian corals and
coralline algae, the biodiversity on coral reefs includes many other
calcifying species that will likely be affected [74–77].”

Paragraph 5.
Ridley states: “Another recent study, by scientists from the U.K.,
Hawaii and Massachusetts, concluded that "marine and freshwater
assemblages have always experienced variable pH conditions," and that
"in many freshwater lakes, pH changes that are orders of magnitude
greater than those projected for the 22nd-century oceans can occur
over periods of hours."”

Comments on Paragraph 5.
This study seems to be Joint et al., 2011, an investigation of marine
microbes. Although of great importance, these are not all marine and
freshwater assemblages as one might understandably infer from Ridley’s
presentation. In the abstract the authors state: “…pH in the
present-day ocean, which is not constant; it varies systematically
with season, depth and along productivity gradients. Yet this natural
variability in pH has rarely been considered in assessments of the
effect of ocean acidification on marine microbes. … For example, in
many freshwater lakes, pH changes that are orders of magnitude greater
than those projected for the twenty second century oceans can occur
over periods of hours. Marine and freshwater assemblages have always
experienced variable pH conditions. Therefore, an appropriate null
hypothesis may be, until evidence is obtained to the contrary, that
major biogeochemical processes in the oceans other than calcification
will not be fundamentally different under future higher CO2/lower pH
conditions. [my bold]

Ridley read and reorganized the abstract, but his distorting glasses
seem to have blinkered him to the inconvenient exception to his
argument made for calcifying organisms such as corals and mollusks,
the topic of his next paragraph.

Paragraph 6.
Ridley states: “The central concern is that lower pH will make it
harder for corals, clams and other "calcifier" creatures to make
calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. Yet this concern also may be
overstated. Off Papua New Guinea and the Italian island of Ischia,
where natural carbon-dioxide bubbles from volcanic vents make the sea
less alkaline, and off the Yucatan, where underwater springs make
seawater actually acidic, studies have shown that at least some kinds
of calcifiers still thrive—at least as far down as pH 7.8.”

Comments on Paragraph 6
The Papua New Guinea study seems to be Fabricius et al., 2011 and the
Ischia study Durrieu de Madron et al., 2011. The latter is the same
study that is discussed in the next paragraph so will be skipped here.
I did not find the source for the Yucatan study so I’ll merely observe
that the assertion that “... at least some kinds of calcifiers still
thrive…” is not reassuring.

Fabricius et al., 2011, state in the abstract, where it is hard to
miss: “Here we show that as pH declines from 8.1 to 7.8 (the change
expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from
390 to 750 ppm, consistent with some scenarios for the end of this
century) some organisms benefit, but many more lose out. … Our
empirical data from this unique field setting confirm model
predictions that ocean acidification, together with temperature
stress, will probably lead to severely reduced diversity, structural
complexity and resilience of Indo-Pacific coral reefs within this

Here too, evidence indicates that the prospects for calcifiers do not
seem very good.

Paragraph 7.
Ridley states: “In a recent experiment in the Mediterranean, reported
in Nature Climate Change, corals and mollusks were transplanted to
lower pH sites, where they proved "able to calcify and grow at even
faster than normal rates when exposed to the high [carbon-dioxide]
levels projected for the next 300 years." In any case, freshwater
mussels thrive in Scottish rivers, where the pH is as low as five.”

Comments on Paragraph 7.
Once one gets past the questionable logic of using the acidification
tolerance of freshwater mussels as a benchmark for marine mussels,
there are two elements of particular interest in this paragraph, (1)
the Mediterranean study and, (2) the survival of Scottish freshwater
(1) The Mediterranean Study. As stated above, the article referred to
seems to be Durrieu de Madron et al., 2011. The authors do not seem to
think the affects of acidification will be as benign as the quotation
selected by Ridley suggests, stating on page 121 that “...
acidification of Mediterranean waters will have severe effects on
biological calcification rates.
(2) Scottish Mussels. The assertion about Scottish mussels is
particularly interesting. Unfortunately I could not trace it to
source. In the meantime I’ll go out on a limb. There happens to be
quite a lot of research on the effects of acidification on freshwater
ecosystems and biota, and some recent material on marine mussels too
(one of which was published in Nature Climate Change, the source of
Fabricius et al., 2011). If the observation is accurate it is probably
an exception and the water is probably loaded with calcium. None of
the studies I know of, including one review with data from Great
Britain are consistent with the assertion that “…freshwater mussels
thrive in Scottish rivers, where the pH is as low as five.” The
question is, where did was this assertion sourced, and how did Ridley
miss the large body of contrary evidence?

Moiseenko, 2005, states on page 96 that: “The mollusks, including
gastropods and small bivalves (Sphaeriidae), are similarly sensitive
(Muniz, 1991), and their abundance decreases at higher acidity. In
Norway, gastropods (including widespread species typical of
oligotrophic lakes) were generally absent from waters with pH
decreasing to 5.2, while bivalves disappeared at pH 4.7. A similar
effect was observed in the United States (Singer, 1984), Canada
(Jeffries, 1997), and Great Britain (Sutcliffe and Carrick, 1973).
Mollusks and crustaceans need calcium for building their shells, and
its shortage in acidified waters may be the main factor limiting their

What hope is there for marine mollusks? Not much it seems, a
contention supported by:

Rodolfo-Metalpa, 2011. “Our combined field and laboratory results
demonstrate that the adverse effects of global warming are exacerbated
when high temperatures coincide with acidification.”

Gaylord, et al., 2011. “Here we demonstrate that ocean acidification
markedly degrades the mechanical integrity of larval shells in the
mussel Mytilus californianus, a critical community member on rocky
shores throughout the northeastern Pacific.”

Dickinson, et al., 2012. “Exposure of the juvenile oysters to elevated
PCO2 and/or low salinity led to a significant increase in mortality,
reduction of tissue energy stores (glycogen and lipid) and negative
soft tissue growth, indicating energy deficiency. …our data suggest
that the combined effects of elevated PCO2 and fluctuating salinity
may jeopardize the survival of eastern oysters because of weakening of
their shells and increased energy consumption.”

References Cited

Dickinson, G. H., A. V. Ivanina, et al. (2012). "Interactive effects
of salinity and elevated CO2 levels on juvenile eastern oysters,
Crassostrea virginica." Journal of Experimental Biology 215(1): 29-43.

Durrieu de Madron, X., C. Guieu, et al. (2011). "Marine ecosystems’
responses to climatic and anthropogenic forcings in the
Mediterranean." Progress in Oceanography 91(2): 97-166.

Fabricius, K. E., C. Langdon, et al. (2011). "Losers and winners in
coral reefs acclimatized to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations."
Nature Clim. Change 1(3): 165-169.

Gaylord, B., T. M. Hill, et al. (2011). "Functional impacts of ocean
acidification in an ecologically critical foundation species." Journal
of Experimental Biology 214(15): 2586-2594.

Hofmann, G. E., J. E. Smith, et al. (2011). "High-Frequency Dynamics
of Ocean pH: A Multi-Ecosystem Comparison." PLoS ONE 6(12): e28983.

Joint, I., S. C. Doney, et al. (2011). "Will ocean acidification
affect marine microbes?" International Society for Microbial Ecology
(ISME J) 5(1): 1-7.

Moiseenko, T. I. (2005). "Effects of acidification on aquatic
ecosystems." Russian Journal of Ecology 36(2): 93-102.

Ridley, M. (2012). Taking Fears of Acid Oceans With a Grain of Salt.
Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2012. New York.

Rodolfo-Metalpa, R., F. Houlbreque, et al. (2011). "Coral and mollusc
resistance to ocean acidification adversely affected by warming."
Nature Clim. Change 1(6): 308-312.

On Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 9:31 PM, Gattuso, Jean-Pierre
<gattuso2 at obs-vlfr.fr> wrote:
> Coral-listers,
> Eugene Shinn mentioned Matt Ridley's article in the Wall Street Journal
> (http://tinyurl.com/77xnp24). Make sure that you also read the comments.
> I am appending below one of mine.
> Cheers,
> Jean-Pierre Gattuso
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Matt Ridley does not provide an accurate account of ocean acidification
> science.
> I agree with him that some media have used catchy but inaccurate
> headlines and I often post comments on the ocean acidification blog
> (http://oceanacidification.wordpress.com/) to explain that the
> definition of “acidic” in the Oxford English dictionary is “having the
> properties of an acid; having a pH of less than 7?. Despite the process
> of ocean acidification (the acidity of seawater has increased about 30%
> since preindustrial time), the oceans are alkaline (pH higher than 7)
> and will not become acidic in the foreseeable future. Hence, the "acid"
> or “acidic” should not be used when referring to seawater.. Note that
> there are few exceptions, seawater can be acidic in the immediate
> vicinity of CO2 vents or in purposeful perturbation experiments.
> That being said, and in contrast to Matt Ridley's statements, ocean
> acidification does impact marine organisms and ecosystems. Some seem to
> benefit from it (certain, but not all, plants), others are negatively
> impacted. The papers alluded to in his article precisely show that
> biodiversity is considerably less in the CO2 vent sites of Ischia
> (Italy) and Papua New Guinea. At the pH level expected at the end of
> this century, 30% of the species are eliminated in Ischia (Hall-Spencer
> et al., 2008). Likewise, in Papua New Guinea, the considerable diversity
> of Indo-Pacific corals takes a hit at the acidity level projected in
> 2100, with a taxonomic richness of hard corals down by 39% (Fabricius et
> al., 2011).
> Matt Ridley claims that "Laboratory experiments find that more marine
> creatures thrive than suffer when carbon dioxide lowers the pH level to
> 7.8". This is also incorrect. Five experts in the field have recently
> concluded that there is a high level of confidence that "Ocean
> acidification will adversely affect calcification" (Gattuso et al., 2011)...
> Informing its readership by providing accurate accounts should be a aim
> of the press. The best way to achieve that goal for the Wall Street
> Journal and the journalists who contribute to it is to seek the input of
> the scientific community.
> Jean-Pierre Gattuso
> Scientific Coordinator, European Project on Ocean Acidification
> References cited:
> Fabricius K. E., Langdon C., Uthicke S., Humphrey C., Noonan S., De’ath
> G., Okazaki R., Muehllehner N., Glas M. S. & Lough J. M., 2011. Losers
> and winners in coral reefs acclimatized to elevated carbon dioxide
> concentrations. Nature Climate change 1:165-169.
> Gattuso J.-P., Bijma J., Gehlen M., Riebesell U. & Turley C., 2011.
> Ocean acidification: knowns, unknowns and perspectives. In: Gattuso
> J.-P. & Hansson L. (Eds.), Ocean acidification, pp. 291-311. Oxford:
> Oxford University Press.
> Hall-Spencer J. M., Rodolfo-Metalpa R., Martin S., Ransome E., Fine M.,
> Turner S. M., Rowley S. J., Tedesco D. & Buia M.-C., 2008. Volcanic
> carbon dioxide vents show ecosystem effects of ocean acidification.
> Nature 454:96-99.
> -- Jean-Pierre Gattuso | http://www.obs-vlfr.fr/~gattuso
> European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA): http://epoca-project.eu/
> "Ocean Acidification", new book (http://tinyurl.com/5skzxb5)
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Jean-Pierre Gattuso | http://www.obs-vlfr.fr/~gattuso
> European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA): http://epoca-project.eu
> "Ocean Acidification", new book (http://tinyurl.com/5skzxb5)
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Is this how science illuminates "reality"? - "the meaning of an
episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the talk
which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze."
- narrator's comment about Marlow's tale-telling, in Heart of Darkness (Conrad)

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