USGS: World on Really Bad Acid Trip

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It has become a fad to argue about the effect of industrial smokestacks on changing climate. But that is far from all they do, as the USGS has just reminded us. (Photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer [akeg

The US Geological Survey has been getting things right since at least the 1930s, when it correctly identified the Dust Bowl — while it was occurring — as a human-caused, not natural, event. Few people recognized the implications at the time, few know them today, and not many paid attention last fall when the USGS told us something else it knows about what we are doing to the world that nourishes us: industrial activities are turning the world to acid.

Global warming has become the only way our media and political hacks talk about pollution. The bogus “debate” between climate scientists and the six or seven remaining corporate-financed climate-change deniers has obscured not only the real debate — about whether it is possible to save anything of human civilization from its ravages — but the fact that climate change is only one of the ailments inflicted on our world by pollution, and it may not be the most immediate or most deadly of pollution’s threats.

That is precisely what the USGS suggests in its groundbreaking study (with the University of Virginia) of how industrial exploitation of natural resources is turning the planet’s ecosystem more acidic, with dire implications for the future of all life on earth. The USGS does not, of course, use the words “industrial exploitation,” preferring the more palatable and snooze-inducing “human use.” Presumably, they hope to thus escape the notice of the legions of lobbyists who, should they perceive a threat to profit, will have the offenders defunded in a heartbeat.

What the USGS does say, without equivocation, is nevertheless heart-stopping: the mining and burning of fossil fuels, the mining and smelting of metals and the application of synthetic fertilizers “have increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing the acidity of oceans; produced acid rain that has increased the acidity of freshwater bodies and soils; produced drainage from mines that has increased the acidity of freshwater streams and groundwater; and added nitrogen to crop lands that has increased the acidity of soils.”

[The USGS news release about the study is here. You can buy the entire study here.] .

The rising acidity of oceans is at least as great a threat to the marine ecosystem, from plankton to corals, as are rising temperatures, and the consequent threat to humanity is far greater than that from rising sea levels. As increasing drought areas and intensities make remaining lakes and rivers far more essential to the survival of entire populations, rising acidification makes that survival much less likely. And while climate change destroys the possibility of agriculture in many areas, global acidification can destroy it everywhere.

Mindful, no doubt, of the mentality of the people on whom it relies for its budget, the USGS, having told us that the entire web of life is crashing, and why, concludes with the typical don’t-worry-we’ll-think-of-something disclaimer. In the words of  USGS scientist Karen Rice, who led the study: “We hope others will use this as a starting point for making scientific and management progress to preserve the atmosphere, waters, and soils that support human life.”

Starting point? We hope somebody will start doing something? Making “progress?”

Here’s a better idea. Brace for impact.

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[UPDATE: New study finds ocean acidification is fastest, worst in 300 million years. Details in  The Editor’s Log.]

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One Response to USGS: World on Really Bad Acid Trip

  1. Gail Zawacki says:

    Quotes at the top of this webpage: http://www.deadtrees-dyingforests.com/

    “…there is a ‘wave’ of acidic atmospheric deposition-induced acidification moving across the landscape, leaving behind a ‘wake’ of ecological damage…” – Dr. Karen Rice, University of Virginia, “Acidification of the the World” September, 2011

    “It’s been said that nitrogen pollution is the biggest environmental disaster that nobody’s ever heard of.” – Dr. Alan Townsend, University of Colorado, August, 2011

    “Fumifugium: Or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake…” – John Evelyn, 1661

    Readers can access the entire paper for free by clicking on the link there – Karen Rice sent it to me & I uploaded it to Google Docs.