“Ocean acidification”: vocabulary in the service of alarmism


I have recently been engaged in an absurd Twitter spat over ocean acidification, following my commendation of James Delingpole’s magnificent and forensic deconstruction of the scare.

What does the phrase “ocean acidification” suggest to you?  I think to most people it would imply that the oceans are acidic, and becoming more acidic.  So it may come as a surprise to know that they’re not acidic at all.  They’re slightly alkaline.

Scientists measure acidity and alkalinity on the same pH scale.  There is one spectrum from extremely acid to extremely alkaline.  Unlike other scales (say temperature) this scale has a left, a right and a (neutral) mid-point.  Perhaps confusingly, the mid-point is defined as pH=7, so pH>7 means alkaline, and pH<7 means acidic.  And the pH of the oceans?  According to National Geographic, they have historically averaged pH=8.2, but in recent years that’s fallen all the way to pH=8.1.  So the oceans have been slightly alkaline since forever, and continue to be so – with a slight change.

The alarmists insist that the oceans are becoming “more acidic”, and in the obscure sense that less alkaline might be interpreted as more acidic, maybe they’re sort of right.  It’s like saying that a blast furnace that was at 900oC and is now 890oC has become “colder”.  But “more acidic” clearly and strongly suggests “acidic to start with”, which is clearly not the case.

This is not a statement about science: it’s a statement about semantics.  About the meaning of words, and how people understand them.  If I say I’m going to make my cup of tea sweeter by adding sugar, I clearly imply it was sweet already.  So when Warmists to use the phrase “more acid” and “ocean acidification” it’s a clear and mendacious attempt to suggest that the oceans are alarmingly acidic, when in fact they’re not acidic at all.

Why do they do it?  Because acid gets a bad press.  Acid is scary.  Stomach acids.  Corrosion.  An acidic ocean will dissolve the shells of crustacea (they say), undermining the marine food chain and threatening life on the planet (despite the fact that crustacea have thrived through very varied and adverse conditions for 550 million years).  So “ocean acidification” serves the alarmist cause, as a propaganda term, not a scientific term.

They tell me that as a politician, I should not have the temerity to question the views of scientists (despite the fact that politicians need to take policy decisions based on their understanding of the facts).  But surely it is incumbent on the experts and the scientists to avoid deliberately misleading language designed to alarm the average punter.

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30 Responses to “Ocean acidification”: vocabulary in the service of alarmism

  1. Ex-expat Colin says:

    NOAA: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F
    “However, continued ocean acidification is causing many parts of the ocean to become undersaturated with these minerals, which is likely to affect the ability of some organisms to produce and maintain their shells”
    “Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of surface ocean waters has fallen by 0.1 pH units”.

    “which is likely”
    “of some”
    0.1 pH units (global instrument measure with tweeks and/or averaging?)

    The man gas in question is somewhere in the region of 1% of 4% emitted. One just wonders about impact (of 1%) or simply ignores it? Not long to go before the scam gets the carpet pulled I hope. I suppose the Scandinavians don’t receive acid rain much these days…that was a bit naughty.

  2. Michael Merrifield says:

    This is unbelievably absurd, even by Roger’s usual standards. If one were to say that the Arctic is much warmer than usual this winter, no-one with any mental faculties at all would interpret this to mean that the North Pole is usually warm in January. If you read that the sea becomes cleaner when polluters stop pumping sewage into it, no-one with any sense would interpret this as meaning that the sea had to be clean to start with because it was being described as becoming cleaner.

    So, why “acidification”? Simply because it is altogether less clumsy than dealkalinification, while, to anyone with even the most basic understanding of science, meaning exactly the same thing.

    • Arthur Dent says:

      I disagree, the current process is one of oceanic neutralisation as pH decreases from 8 towards 7. If the process continued below 7 it would be appropriate to talk about acidification. This is however all about using alarmist language. Acidification is very alarming to the general public whereas neutralisation might even be seen as positive. This is the same abuse of language that morphed Global Warming, Which some people might find beneficial, into climate change which can be made to seem very frightening.

    • KennieD says:

      Michael Merrifield :”So, why “acidification”? Simply because it is altogether less clumsy than dealkalinification, while, to anyone with even the most basic understanding of science, meaning exactly the same thing.”
      I think this is disingenuous, even by Michael’s standards. As you know, all this alarmist nonsense is aimed at the plebs who either do not understand any science or those who like you, pretend they do. It is alarmist language designed to justify taking tax money from those same plebs.

    • catweazle666 says:

      “So, why “acidification”?”

      Disingenuous, as is your wont.

      It’s because it notwithstanding being less than accurate (interesting that as a self-proclaimed scientist you condone such imprecision – or maybe not…) sounds scary, pure and simple.

      Which suits your agenda perfectly, of course.

    • Francesca Macfarlane says:

      So as a promoter of harmful ocean acidification, you are happy for “the man in the street” to know that pure distilled water is substantially more acidic than sea water, and is likely to remain so forever?

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Personally, I would rather they knew: that distilled water contains just water, while seawater contains molecules of various acids and alkalis as well as water; that the acid molecules cause harm to coral and other sea life; and that while there are still more alkali molecules than acid ones which makes the pH greater than 7, the number of harmful acidic molecules is increasing due to changes in the chemistry of seawater brought about by its absorption of additional CO2.

        Or “acidification” for short.

      • catweazle666 says:

        “while seawater contains molecules of various acids and alkalis as well as water; that the acid molecules cause harm to coral and other sea life…”

        “…molecules of various acids and alkalis as well as water…”?

        What a load of total, utter crap. I thought you claimed to be some sort of scientist.

        You really haven’t a clue what you’re wittering about, have you?

        Perhaps this might inform you – always you are sufficiently scientifically literate to make sense of it, which seems unlikely, as your level of physical chemistry – especially with regard to the implications of hydrogen ion concentration and carbonate-bicarbonate buffering – appears entirely non-existent.


      • Michael Merrifield says:

        I guess you missed the bit where it explained that the total alkalinity was the difference between the number of alkaline molecular ions and the number of acidic molecular ions.

      • catweazle666 says:

        Yep, I guessed http://cdiac.ornl.gov/ftp/cdiac74/chapter2.pdf was above your pay grade.

        Seems I was correct.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        No, you weren’t, because you still apparently missed the part in the source that you quoted that explains that the alkalinity of seawater is given by the difference between the contributions of alkaline and acidic molecular ions (top of page 4, since you seem to be struggling)

    • Michael you and others have tried to use this fundamentally flawed simile. The thing is that temperature is a single scale (starting from absolute zero), so something cold can still be warmer than something colder. Equally if your two-year-old isn’t tall, he can still be taller than he was last year.

      But pH isn’t like that. There is a real (not conventional) divide at pH=7, which is neutral. Below that, it’s acidic. Above it, it’s alkaline. So it is deliberately misleading to describe something actually alkaline as “more acidic”, as it is misleading to describe something acidic as “less alkaline”. Warmists choose to stress the term “acidic”, and to extend it to the alkaline sector of the scale, because “acidification” sounds really scary, whereas “dealkilinisation” doesn’t.

      I stress that this is not an argument about science. It’s an argument about the use of language. You may be concerned about science, and I have no problems with scientists misusing language in their own circles if that helps them. But I object to the terminology being used to mislead the average voter, who it’s my job to represent.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        You are mistaken. Sea water contains both acidic and alkali ions, which happen to combine to give a net pH more alkali than water. Absorption of atmospheric CO2 by the oceans is shifting that balance by introducing more acidic ions (which are the things that interact badly with coral, etc. Hence acidification.

      • catweazle666 says:

        So tell us, Professor, are the oceans warming?
        If so, what is the effect of increase in temperature on the quantity of gas in aqueous solution?
        Is the solution of increased atmospheric CO2 in water described by Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures, and is the effect essentially linear over the ranges we are discussing (ie as the PP increases, the amount dissolved will increase in a linear fashion)?
        Is the outgassing of dissolved gases in water described by Henry’s Law, and is it essentially non-linear over the ranges we are discussing?
        What is the implication of the above with respect to solution of CO2 in aqueous solution with regard to increasing temperature (ie as the temperature increases, progressively increasing quantities of the gas will leave solution until no gas is left in solution at all)?

        We’ll ignore the effects of carbonate/bicarbonate buffering (you DO understand the meaning of the term “buffering” in this application, don’t you?) for the moment, as it is described in the .PDF I linked, so is available to anyone who wishes to investigate it.

      • catweazle666 says:

        I suggest you stick to Astronomy, Professor Merrifield, and leave the more arcane aspects of chemistry such as hydrogen ion concentration to those who actually have actually made a living utilising their knowledge and understanding of it, physical chemists and chemical engineers, for example).

        As to your comment “So, why “acidification”? Simply because it is altogether less clumsy than dealkalinification, why precisely did you not use the term “neutralisation” which is far more precise in the context in question, and actually part of the English language, rather than “dealkalinification” which is not part of the English language, purely something you made up in order to muddy the water?

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Feel free to use all the word salad you like. The reality is that the ocean is becoming more acidic, as evidenced both by measurement and theory (which factors in the changing temperature to its predictions of future further acidification, as you would know if you knew anything at all about the subject). But now I am once again reminded why bothering to respond to your ridiculous trolling is a complete waste of time, so feel free to have the last word. Knock yourself out. I won’t be bothering to respond.

      • catweazle666 says:

        “The reality is that the ocean is becoming more acidic as evidenced both by measurement and theory”

        No, the reality is that the ocean is not actually changing its pH much at all, and even if the alarmism were correct it would not be becoming more acidic, as it is currently around pH 8.1 – 8.4 (and considerably below or above that in certain areas such as river estuaries or areas of volcanic activity), which is alkaline, so it could not possibly become more acidic until the pH had dropped below 7.0.

        Reduction in pH above 7.0 is correctly described as neutralisation until it reaches that point, as has been explained to you already, more than once.

        As to theory, if the oceans are indeed warming, they will emit dissolved gases, not absorb more, as described by the combination of Dalton’s law and Henry’s law. So you’re wrong on that too.

        Stick to astronomy, <Professor Merrifield of the University of Nottingham as that’s your subject, you’re right out of your depth with real, here-and-now terrestrial science such as chemistry. As a chemical engineer, I would under no circumstances speak down to you and cast doubt on your ability and expertise as an astronomer, do me the courtesy of affording me the same respect.

        It seems you believe anyone who is not an ardent adherent of the rapidly becoming extinct religion of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is somehow mentally deficient and scientifically illiterate and can be patronised, insulted and condescended to with impunity, I can assure you that is most definitely not the case. We are not first year students for you to bully – most of us have not been so for several decades, please bear that in mind.

  3. Sorry Roger, you clearly sound like a real expert on this subject. Just so I can credit you in my dissertation on ocean acidification, what exactly are your qualifications and credentials on the subject? Marine biology? Or perhaps Oceanography? Climate Studies? None? Oh….

    Still, I can’t believe the world has been taken in by this massive conspiracy! Even the US Department of Energy, Office of Biological & Environmental Research, UK Committee on Climate Change, Royal Society, US National Research Council, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, Journal of Geophysical Research, Pacific Science Association, United States National Academy of Sciences, US Congressional Research Service, National Geographic Society, Smithsonian Ocean Portal, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Institute of Polar and Marine Research, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, CNRS, Plymouth Marine Laboratory… etc etc.

    They must all take us for fools! [sarcasm]

    Point is, who should people trust? Those that are extensively qualified on the subject and devoted their lives to the subject, or some UKIP MEP mouthing off on Twitter (and getting hilariously slated for it!). And just because I and your detractors don’t use Breitbart for my news sources, it doesn’t mean I/we read the Guardian.

    • catalanbrian says:

      The people on here seem to rather prefer to listen to the rants of the UKIP MEP. You have to be aware that for these people it is dogma and not truth that matters

      • catweazle666 says:

        Still snivelling, Brian? Oh diddums, are your cappuccinos still a few cents dearer than they were twelve months ago?

        Looking at the exchange rate, I note it is almost exactly the same as it was five years ago, so I can’t see what you’ve got to whine about, you’ve had a bit of luck over the last few years.

        It must really boil your p1ss that all the so-called “economic experts” have U-turned on their dire “Project Fear” prognostications and admitted they are 100% wrong, Brexit is going to be good for Great Britain economically.

        I was in Europe over Christmas, and met an Englishman who sounded like a relative of yours, p1ssing and moaning about how expats had been betrayed etc. etc. etc.

        Well, to cut a long story short, my wife and I picked up a very nice property deal on the Med for considerably less than its market price to add to our existing portfolio, we hope to make quite a tidy sum on it. But hey, that’s the difference between optimists and pessimists, right?

        Plus, a good friend of mine has done something similar, but in Northern France.

        So keep on whining sunshine, some of us are already profiting handsomely from your entirely unjustified hysteria.

        Oh, and by the way, you wouldn’t recognise truth if it scuttled under your foetid bridge and bit you on the snout.

      • catalanbrian says:

        You sad old person. As you are so worldly I am surprised that you believe that we, here in Catalunya, drink “Cappuccinos” We don’t. That is what they do in Italy and in the UK. I am not whining, just commenting on the blinkered viewpoint of sad old fools like you. I really don’t give a twopenny toss about your property deals and can only hope that you come unstuck.

      • catweazle666 says:

        “and can only hope that you come unstuck.”

        Sounds like you already did.

      • catalanbrian says:

        What on earth makes you think that, you venomous old fool? I would also draw your attention to a number of wrong assumptions in your diatribe. Unlike the Englishman that you allegedly met I am not whining about “how expats had been betrayed”. Whilst I voted to remain that was because I believed (and still believe) that the UK is better off as part of the EU, not because of any “expat” nonsense. Further I am not whining about the exchange rate. It makes an insignificant difference to my lifestyle, if any at all. I think that you will find that the “economic experts” are not doing a u-turn at all. Their views have not changed. Finally as for your comment “Brexit is going to be good for Great Britain economically.” You do not know that, and nor do I, but the indications thus far are negative. But of course the blinkered old fools like you will still believe the siren calls of the likes of Farage and his gang even as the UK disappears down the economic toilet.

      • Jesse_Marcel says:

        Brian, don’t waste your time and energy on jerks like him. Through misplaced pride, they pop up like dandelions on every forum. This one successfully moved the discussion with you from Roger’s original subject to Brexit, for which he is quite pleased for himself I’m sure.

        For every person who voted Leave in the Referendum, sincerely convinced they were doing the right thing for their kids and their country, there was (almost) another person equally sincere that voting Remain was the right answer. As a nation we would do well to recognise that, and move on. People like Catweazle think that anyone who voted The Other Way has personality problems. Soon as I identify these trolls I avoid ’em.

      • catweazle666 says:


  4. mike5262015 says:

    Scientists can take measurements very well, given the right kit. The problems come when they start to pontificate the measurements into meanings for life, and it gets even worse when media pick up on this and enlarge a few words out of context. I well remember being told that water was bad for you, and so were eggs. If you tried to drink 50 gallons, and eat 100 eggs a day, I would imagine that you could prove that they were bad for you, but a glass of water, or an egg being bad for you ? – What total tosh !

    Roger. When you are unlucky enough to find yourself in the midst of Global Warmists, and you can’t take their excited religious zeal for another moment, why not ask them how this planet was able to escape the last ice age, with an increase in global temperature, unaided by any form of industrialisation or input by mankind ? If that is not enough to shut them up, run like hell, as you have fallen into a collection of ‘ would be ‘ scientists where you may know more science than them !

    But I have a better suggestion for you Roger. If I want help to mend a car’s differential, I would not seek out an Archbishop. – Everyone to their own ability ! Your ability is very clearly within common sense politics, and you are in the middle of the biggest screw up of politics, namely the E.U. Your expertise in that area must not be wasted by talking to acid sea numbnuts. They believe what they believe, and probably stop their kids swimming in the sea ! Just remember that you have been called to higher matters, and Thank you for that.

    • Jesse_Marcel says:

      mike5262015, I couldn’t agree more with your comments.

      I think most of us who have followed Roger’s statements conclude that he has always tried to be objective in explaining his points and to my mind has usually succeeded in that.

      The trouble with these huge, global issues like temperature, pH scale and the rest is that the whole subject, data interpretation and all, has been hijacked by groups with purely political ends. Around 10-15 years ago there were measurements taken around the globe for temperature, and many stations were set up in the PRC. The group who wanted to ‘prove’ a point that the Earth is warming up selectively used Beijing and other stations close to big cities and left out data from inland which showed no particular warming trend. So effectively the whole issue has been distorted. Similarly other groups are selectively using benign data sets which ‘prove’ the opposite case. Please don’t ask me to name names, I can’t, but I know what I have read here and there when I’ve had five minutes to spare between earning a crust.

      Data is data but these groups are not helping at all solving the problem, which is not that the earth is warming or that we are approaching another ice age, but that we simply Don’t Know.

      Without meaning to put words in Roger’s mouth, this is another occasional illustration of his general point which is about alarmism. We need many more people like Roger trying to inject some objective common sense into these debates. Stopping the above- mentioned political groups arbitrarily selecting data would be a damn good start.

  5. Jane Davies says:

    Then we have the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, it all fits…….doesn’t it?
    Yep it all fits…….

  6. Ex-expat Colin says:

    Hopefully this kind of money seeking discussion/argument will end very soon…

    “Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter”


  7. Pingback: SpeedoScience | …and Then There's Physics

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