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The Last Time Oceans Got This Acidic This Fast, 96% of Marine Life Went Extinct 417

merbs writes: The biggest extinction event in planetary history was driven by the rapid acidification of our oceans, a new study concludes (abstract). So much carbon was released into the atmosphere, and the oceans absorbed so much of it so quickly, that marine life simply died off, from the bottom of the food chain up. That doesn't bode well for the present, given the similarly disturbing rate that our seas are acidifying right now. A team led by University of Edinburgh researchers collected rocks in the United Arab Emirates that were on the seafloor hundreds of millions of years ago, and used the boron isotopes found within to model the changing levels of acidification in our prehistoric oceans. They now believe that a series of gigantic volcanic eruptions in the Siberian Trap spewed a great fountain of carbon into the atmosphere over a period of tens of thousands of years. This was the first phase of the extinction event, in which terrestrial life began to die out.
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The Last Time Oceans Got This Acidic This Fast, 96% of Marine Life Went Extinct

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  • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:32AM (#49445771) Homepage

    ... they're not becoming acidic, they're becoming less alkaline and are slowly heading towards neutral. Not that that distinction matters to the plankton.

    Personally I think this issue and other other pressures on ocean life from man such as pollution and plastic debris is far more pressing in the snort term than global warming but hardly anyone - even the enviromentalists - makes a big deal about it.

    • by Hardhead_7 ( 987030 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:40AM (#49445831)
      Ocean acidification is a huge deal to environmentalists - I'm not sure where you're getting your information. And as it's driven by the same thing that causes Global Warming, dealing with carbon in the atmosphere is a twofer.
      • by bondsbw ( 888959 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:28AM (#49446241)

        They might do better to focus on issues like this. "You are killing the earth's food supply, including your own" probably goes farther with more people than "It will get a degree or two hotter over the next 100 years".

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 )

      It is far more pressing in the snort term to stop doing drugs, mmkay?

    • by thaylin ( 555395 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:48AM (#49445899)

      Ph level is a sliding scale with acid on one side and alkaline on the other. If Ocean water is moves from alkaline to neutral to below 7 on the scale, which is what tehy are saying is/will happen, then it is becoming acidic. It is currently at an 8.1 out of a 14 point scale.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tompaulco ( 629533 )
        While technically true that anything becoming less alkaline is becoming more acidic, it is deceptive wording chosen to cause alarm.
        It should also be pointed out that the oceans are not of a uniform pH and can vary from 7.5 to 8.4. Saltwater aquariums can similarly vary in pH in about the same range. To say that the last time the pH was this low all the life died out in the oceans is disingenuous. There are already parts of the ocean where the pH is much lower than 8.1 and life continues to thrive in those
    • by itzly ( 3699663 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:49AM (#49445917)

      they're not becoming acidic, they're becoming less alkaline

      More acidic is the same as less alkaline. It's an increase in protons.

    • by DogDude ( 805747 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:54AM (#49445957)
      Personally I think this issue and other other pressures on ocean life from man such as pollution and plastic debris is far more pressing in the snort term than global warming but hardly anyone - even the enviromentalists - makes a big deal about it.

      There are quite a few large studies about the plastic content in the oceans, and quite a few oceanographers have raised concerns. You should Google it!
    • by Merk42 ( 1906718 )
      Isn't that like saying: "they're not becoming warmer, they're becoming less cold and are slowly heading towards tepid."? As in, more X is the same as less Y, not that I'm saying ocean temperatures are changing.
    • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:56AM (#49445977) Journal

      "... they're not becoming acidic, they're becoming less alkaline..." is like saying "you're tires aren't going flat, they're just becoming less inflated."

      And the explanation for why acidity (or as you so euphemistically put it, "de-alkalinizing") is because of the amount of carbon being absorbed through, and you guessed it, CO2 emissions, the same thing causing AGW. They are aspects of the same problem, with, and wait for it, the same solution; reducing CO2 emissions.

    • they're not becoming acidic, they're becoming less alkaline

      Which is kind of like saying "you're not becoming taller, you're becoming less short".

      It's a fairly pointless distinction.

    • Strictly speaking, from TFA, there aren't enough fossil fuels available to duplicate the extinction event they're talking about.

      The Rate of Change is as high as it was then, but the total change possible (given that we burn all the fossil fuels) isn't as high as it was then.

      Which probably means no major extinction event in the near future....

      • by itzly ( 3699663 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:11AM (#49446087)

        Which probably means no major extinction event in the near future....

        I think the extinctions are more related to the rate of change than to absolute numbers. Absolute numbers for CO2 have been much higher, and there was plenty of life at those times. The problem is that it takes a different form of life, adapted to the different environment. Quick changes could possibly overwhelm the rate in which species can adapt.

      • Which probably means no major extinction event in the near future....

        Behold the contrarian school of science, where assertions require no studies, and are just known to be correct because they have a pleasant ring to the political faithful.

    • They can actually becoming rather acidic. Increase in CO2 results in its absorption by the oceans as carbonic acid (H2CO3), with related decrease in pH. This is responsible for bleaching and ultimately from making life in the acqueus environment impossible. It's obviously a matter of concentration.
    • by dave420 ( 699308 )
      Hardly anyone is complaining about the rise in plastic debris in the oceans, or about pollution? Even a cursory glance over the more prominent environmental literature will show you are speaking abject bollocks. Lumping all environmentalists together is like lumping all economists together - you might be right with ridiculously broad strokes ('they call themselves X'), but as soon as you start to look closer the vast differences in the group become apparent. It really doesn't help you sound credible if y
    • by dave420 ( 699308 )
      That's like saying something being heated from 1K to 20K isn't getting warmer, but getting "less cold".
    • .. they'r.e not becoming acidic, they're becoming less alkaline and are slowly heading towards neutral.

      Perhaps they've changed things in the 20+ years since I took my last chemistry class, but "becoming less alkaline" is pretty much the definition of "becoming more acidic".

    • Do you realize that carbon dioxide uptake from the atmosphere is what's driving ocean acidification? Compare the map of the world's forests to one hundred, one thousand, and ten thousand years ago. Add the fact that industrialization over the past two centuries got hundreds of millions of years' worth of sequestered carbon and released it into the atmosphere. What's this to the natural world? A top-level mass extinction.

      The ecosystem's screwed. Whether it's beyond recovery is the question. Seeing as h

  • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:43AM (#49445867) Homepage Journal

    So, where are all the environmentalists demanding we build integral fast reactors as fast as we can? We have a huge 300,000 year light-water-reactor waste problem, a huge CO2 problem, and only one source of energy that can satisfy all the demand that humans have and will have as the other billions are lifted out of poverty. There's only one known technology [] that cleans up the mess and provides the power.

    But how does solving the problem concentrate power in the hands of governments, right? Big shocker that it was Al Gore who lead the charge to cancel the IFR program. Total coincidence. That's why Obama won't even take Branson's calls about building them now, on his dime.

    Just tax carbon and the oceans will be saved, amirite?

    The silver lining is that China will build them and eventually America will be forced by the harsh realities of economics to buy them from the Chinese manufacturers, as China replaces the US as the center of industrialization. Unless Americans start refusing to be controlled by sociopaths first.

    • by nine-times ( 778537 ) <> on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:03AM (#49446019) Homepage

      So, where are all the environmentalists demanding we build integral fast reactors as fast as we can?

      There are actually quite a number of environmentalists who have suggested that we should use nuclear power in order to get off of fossil fuels. I suspect a lot of the problem is political. There are still a lot of people with an irrational fear of nuclear power on one side of the issue, and on the other side there are people who support fossil fuels just to say "fuck you" to "the hippies". And that's before you even get into the lobbying and propaganda from fossil fuel producers.

      It's an uphill battle to do anything, even if it completely makes sense and has broad support, because there are always ignorant people and entrenched interests.

      • That works only when you conveniently exclude those with entirely rational concerns about nuclear power by labelling anyone with such concerns "irrational".

        • Well no, what I'm saying is true even though there are some rational concerns about nuclear power. The fact that there are rational concerns doesn't prevent some people from having an irrational fear.

        • by caseih ( 160668 )

          Except if you study the IFR idea, you'll find there are very few rational concerns about it. In fact it handily addresses all the traditional concerns about Nuclear energy. Safety, waste, etc. If the article linked to by the GP is correct, even the worry about plutonium bomb making is unwarranted as IFR technology simply can't be used to make a bomb. If this scientist is correct (and I see no evidence he's not--after all he worked on this project for many years), then any politician opposing IFR is irr

      • I think nuclear power CAN be safe, and CAN be a net environmental benefit (meaning it causes far less environmental damage than equivalent gas or coal operations), however, I'm not sure that it can be those two things AND be economical at the same time.

        It's hard for a fission plant to pay for the interest on the capital used to build it selling electricity at rates competitive with alternatives. The way fusion is looking, if it EVER works, it might be in the same boat as fission, economically, except worse

        • Well we can argue about a lot of different specifics on this issue. Nuclear power may not ultimately be the best solution, but it's also true that there are many environmentalists that have changed their mind on the issue, and argued that we should switch to nuclear even if it's not "economical".

          Part of the argument there is that fossil fuels are also not economical, but that their costs are hidden. First, they are also subsidized in various ways, including taking up a disproportionate amount of our fore

    • by prefec2 ( 875483 )

      While you US boys discuss other reactor types, the Chinese and Europe are moving towards renewable energy quite fast. We invest in cheap and durable storage technology and energy management, as well as in wind and solar power (for example Germany []). When I look at the US, I also see that people and industry are mainly investing in renewable energy (and unfortunately oil) and not in any nuclear stuff. Even though there are reports on /. every now and then about a new concept

    • While you're ultimately correct, what's holding back the IFR is *not* conspiracy, but material science.

      The neutron flux for those is insane! They can't get them to run without dissolving for very long. They aren't economical unless they can run for many years without a total refurbishment.

      The best arm-chair hand-waving 'solution' I can think of barring some serious material science advances is a set of cores that repair themselves on a regular basis with CNC/3D printing tech.

  • by Hardhead_7 ( 987030 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:47AM (#49445893)
    I notice TFA doesn't mention competing theories, like the ocean acidificaiton is being caused by the natural cycle of sunspots. This is a serious theory, put forth by me the other day when I was looking up at the sun and thinking that no one probably has done any research into how sunspots could affect ocean acidity. This is just anther example of the mainstream media not giving equal time to competing theories! Instead, they just focus on those that come from scientists doing studies!

    And if it's not sunspots, it's probably volcanoes or something. I'll figure that out if someone disproved my first theory.
  • by pla ( 258480 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:54AM (#49445965) Journal
    And with this, we learn the real solution to the Fermi paradox - Not warlike tendencies among apex predators capable of becoming sentient, not resource starvation before getting off-planet (though close to that), not Reapers or something similar, not the actual absence of habitable planets - But simply the ease of developing ecosystem-destroying technology vs the complexity of understanding the chaotic interdependence of planet-sized ecosystems.

    We had a nice run, humanity. Maybe the Blattarian race that succeeds us in a few million years will do better.
  • by danbert8 ( 1024253 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @09:55AM (#49445971) []

    Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event

    As originally proposed by a team of scientists led by Luis Alvarez, it is now generally believed that the K–Pg extinction was triggered by a massive comet/asteroid impact and its catastrophic effects on the global environment, including a lingering impact winter that made it impossible for plants and plankton to carry out photosynthesis.

    Triassic–Jurassic extinction event

    Gradual climate change, sea-level fluctuations or a pulse of oceanic acidification[6] during the late Triassic reached a tipping point. However, this does not explain the suddenness of the extinctions in the marine realm.
    Asteroid impact, but so far no impact crater of sufficient size has been dated to coincide with the Triassic–Jurassic boundary.

    Permian–Triassic extinction event (the one claimed here)

    There are several proposed mechanisms for the extinctions; the earlier phase was probably due to gradual environmental change, while the latter phase has been argued to be due to a catastrophic event.

    Late Devonian extinction

    The causes of these extinctions are unclear. Leading theories include changes in sea level and ocean anoxia, possibly triggered by global cooling or oceanic volcanism. The impact of a comet or another extraterrestrial body has also been suggested.

    Ordovician–Silurian extinction events

    The immediate cause of extinction[which?] appears to have been the movement of Gondwana into the south polar region. This led to global cooling, glaciation and consequent sea level fall. The falling sea level disrupted or eliminated habitats along the continental shelves.

    TL:DR -> Maybe some major extinction events were caused by climate shifts, but all were theorized to be gradual shifts, not sudden. The sudden extinction events are generally due to volcanic or impact events.

  • by Crashmarik ( 635988 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:01AM (#49446005) []

    Researchers have variously suggested that there were from one to three distinct pulses, or phases, of extinction.[7][11][12][13] There are several proposed mechanisms for the extinctions; the earlier phase was probably due to gradual environmental change, while the latter phase has been argued to be due to a catastrophic event. Suggested mechanisms for the latter include one or more large bolide impact events, massive volcanism, coal or gas fires and explosions from the Siberian Traps,[14] and a runaway greenhouse effect triggered by sudden release of methane from the sea floor due to methane clathrate dissociation or methane-producing microbes known as methanogens;[15] possible contributing gradual changes include sea-level change, increasing anoxia, increasing aridity, and a shift in ocean circulation driven by climate change.

    Really, the PT event was the perfect storm of extinction events.

    • by itzly ( 3699663 )

      While wikipedia is generally reliable, I wouldn't trust it as an authority against fresh research. It's the new research that determines what people will write in wikipedia, not the other way around.

  • by amck ( 34780 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:02AM (#49446015) Homepage

    To be pedantic: 96% of marine _species_ went extinct.

    We've seen 99% of all of some species disappear, and the species come back. Homo Sapiens was brought down to a 10,000 person bottleneck once, but bounced back. We've had 90%+ of some fish populations disappear with almost no complete species disappearing. But the great extinctions losing 96 % of species is another level entirely.

  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:20AM (#49446171) Homepage

    The Last Time Oceans Got This Acidic This Fast

    Wait - when this 96% extinction happened, where the oceans acidic as they are now, or were they more acidic? As far as I can tell the substance of the article only talks rate of change of acidity, not the actual pH.

    So, okay, the ocean pH is going down at a high rate. But that doesn't mean we're looking at the same kind of circumstances as occured 252m years ago.

  • by cohomology ( 111648 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:28AM (#49446249)

    I believe that ocean acidification is one of the planet's greatest problems. But I am ignorant about the timing.

    The article is about the Permian Extinction. It took place 250 million years ago. When geologists or biologists say that something happened "fast" they might be talking about 10 years, or ten thousand years, or ten million years. That matters. If the scale is long then I don't care because we have *no idea* what life will be like then.

  • by gatkinso ( 15975 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @10:59AM (#49446481)

    ..."over tens of thousands of years".

  • by Ralph Siegler ( 3506871 ) on Friday April 10, 2015 @12:26PM (#49447135)
    The pH of the ocean at that time went to about 7.3, the amount of carbon it would take to even go to 8.0 from present levels is staggering and would take centuries even if we went to pure coal power. This nonsense doom prediction will not happen.
    • by itzly ( 3699663 )

      According to the author, it's the rate of change that is worrying, not the absolute levels.

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats