Coral Reefs, Carbon Dioxide, and Climate Change

Indur Goklany has a staggeringly scientifcally illiterate post regarding coral reefs and climate change based on the re-emergence of coral reefs over fifty years after nuclear testing took place.

How often have you heard that coral reefs are fragile and would be wiped out by global warming?


In 1954 the South Pacific atoll was rocked by a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the explosives dropped on Hiroshima.

The explosion shook islands more than 100 miles away, generated a wave of heat measuring 99,000ºF and spread mist-like radioactive fallout as far as Japan and Australia.

But, much to the surprise of a team of research divers who explored the area, the mile-wide crater left by the detonation has made a remarkable recovery and is now home to a thriving underwater ecosystem.

99,000 degrees Fahrenheit! By comparison the upper-bound estimate for global warming is a puny global temperature increase of 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit (less in the ocean). So even if global warming wipes out life on earth, global warming catastrophists can take comfort that nature will, as it inevitably must, reassert itself.

First of all, I’m relatively certain that the coral at the atoll are not the same coral that died in the nuclear testing.

Second, let’s not forget that the nuclear explosion was a very quick, one-time event. On the other hand, increasing average atmospheric and ocean temperatures is something that is happening over time and lasts much longer. The comparison here is like arguing that The Godfather is unrealistic because Don Corleone couldn’t possibly have died from the increasing cholesterol in his body leading to a heart attack. After all, he had been shot six times and survived!

Third, anyone who is familiar with the impact of pollution on coral reefs knows that the primary concern about carbon dioxide with respect to the reefs is not about temperature and climate change, but rather that increasing CO2 emissions are causing the oceans to become more acidic, which has the potential to cause coral reefs to simply dissolve.

“About a third of the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans,” says Caldeira, “which helps slow greenhouse warming, but is a major pollutant of the oceans.” The absorbed CO2 produces carbonic acid, the same acid that gives soft drinks their fizz, making certain minerals called carbonate minerals dissolve more readily in seawater. This is especially true for aragonite, the mineral used by corals and many other marine organisms to grow their skeletons.

“Before the industrial revolution, over 98% of warm water coral reefs were bathed with open ocean waters 3.5 times supersaturated with aragonite, meaning that corals could easily extract it to build reefs,” says [Chemical Oceanographer Long] Cao. “But if atmospheric CO2 stabilizes at 550 ppm — and even that would take concerted international effort to achieve — no existing coral reef will remain in such an environment.” The chemical changes will impact some regions sooner than others. At greatest risk are the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean Sea.

The increasing acidification of the oceans is a real problem, and as CO2 emissions into the atmosphere continue, the problem is only going to get worse. Anyone who’s ever owned a salt-water aquarium knows that keeping the pH levels balanced is important, because if the pH gets off, you have a tank full of dead fish.

The ocean is no different. It’s just bigger, and you can’t go to the pet store to restock it.

(If you’re interested in more about the chemistry of ocean acidification, the excellent climate science blog RealClimate has a summary here.)

FILED UNDER: Climate Change, Environment, Science & Technology, ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. MichaelB says:

    Obviously global warming is a very different issue.

    That said, the study of the test site is interesting. it’s too bad we don’t have really detailed information about what it was like before the nuclear testing. If we did, it might give us some interesting insights into the ocean ecosystem.

    I am rather doubtful – to say the least – that’s it’s worth nuking another patch of ocean just to watch and see what happens though!

  2. William d'Inger says:

    Obviously global warming is a very different issue.

    Um, I just had a scientist tell me the term “global warming” is passe. We now use “climate change” instead, although he isn’t sure why. Can anybody enlighten me/us on that point? I have noted that Mr. Knapp is using the currently approved terminology, and I presume we all should.

  3. Dutchgirl says:

    >>Can anybody enlighten me/us on that point?

    An overall temperature increase on a global scale does not mean warming will occur everywhere on earth. For example, increased water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico may redirect the Gulf Stream away from northern Atlantic, causing local cooling in Europe and the Northeastern USA. The term global climate change reflects this aspect of changing weather patterns caused by global temperature increase.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    When the theory starts to fall apart adjustments must be made to keep the public confused. It’s now climate change since the data doesn’t show the projected warming. I expect more terminology changes and “adjustments” to the theory soon.

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    When the theory starts to fall apart adjustments must be made to keep the public confused. It’s now climate change since the data doesn’t show the projected warming.

    That’s actually not even remotely true. And actually, melting at the ice caps is occurring at a faster rate than projected….

  6. anjin-san says:

    I don’t pretend to understand the underlying science, but my reading indicates that a great number of climate scientists are stunned and alarmed at the rate ice is melting at the poles and in Greenland.

  7. Fran Manns says:

    You always talk about acid; the ocean is basic and acidification should always be referred to as ‘becoming less basic.’ …unless of course you have a bias. Moreover I do not see anything quantitative. How can I judge your assumptions unless you prove the hypothesis. The report on my imminent death is premature. I have been sloshing around in the basins on the crust for more than four billion years. I now cover nearly 71 per cent of the planet. Since the last ice age I have lifted myself out of the basin by 120 metres and scared the tribes of Noah to the higher ground. During deep time I became the universal solvent for the volcanoes and the clouds. I have taken up as much salt as required by local circumstances and sometimes give it back in hot shallows and desert areas of my world. I have given man the salt in his blood. Your CO2 output is infinitesimally small. I have absorbed as much gas as I need to maintain balance with the organic world within me and on land. The exchange is so peaceful that science calls it equilibrium. I can absorb more CO2, if the plants do not need it, and it does not give me acid imbalance. My pH will remain basic no matter what you say. These variations you measure have come and gone many uncountable times on the planet and your baseline is too small to know the truth. What you do not get is that warming of the oceans releases CO2 and other gasses from my water, while cooling my water allows me to take up CO2 in vast amounts to nestle with the other molecules in my coldest most remote realms. I can absorb all that man can produce because your impact is feeble compared to my capacity.
    Please watch me with humility for you cannot change me. I am the ongoing sink for the planet, and I am huge and my heat content is beyond your estimation. Measure me here and there with your microscopes but know that I will never be that way in that place again. Open your mind to the infinite cycles of chemistry and physics and kneel on my beach. You can only hurt me by not respecting my infinite ability to change chemistry and temperature in all the corners of the seas. My CO2 feeds your plants and your plants provide all the oxygen you breathe. Your base line is infinitesimally small yet your mouth is wide open.

  8. Fran Manns says:

    The Antarctic ice is increasing but the peninsula where the calving occurs lies on a volcanic island arc with high geothermal heat flow and at least one active volcano. Some of the recent alarmist coverage is in the region of high heat flow under the volcanoes. Otherwise Antarctica is accumulating ice in the interior as it cools. It cools because the clean ice that is deposited reflects energy into space easily.

    The arctic ice fluctuates widely but this winter the ice coverage is larger than normal because of a very long cold winter. Alex, you could read more and find out.

    By the way the bear population fluctuation is due to poaching and protection. At the present time the majority of our bear groups are increasing in numbers and health as we enforce the law more vigorously.

  9. davod says:

    There was a recent review of parts of the Great Barrier Reef and scientists were shocked to see that the ref was not being affected by GW/CC as much as predicted.

    Global warming to climate change was because the proponents were being caught out to much.

    This exchange “Climate facts to warm to” in The Australian may be of interest:

    “Duffy asked Marohasy: “Is the Earth still warming?” She replied: “No, actually, there has been cooling, if you take 1998 as your point of reference. If you take 2002 as your point of reference, then temperatures have plateaued. This is certainly not what you’d expect if carbon dioxide is driving temperature because carbon dioxide levels have been increasing but temperatures have actually been coming down over the last 10 years.”

    Duffy: “Is this a matter of any controversy?”

    Marohasy: “Actually, no. The head of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has actually acknowledged it. He talks about the apparent plateau in temperatures so far this century. So he recognises that in this century, over the past eight years, temperatures have plateaued … This is not what you’d expect, as I said, because if carbon dioxide is driving temperature then you’d expect that, given carbon dioxide levels have been continuing to increase, temperatures should be going up … So (it’s) very unexpected, not something that’s being discussed. It should be being discussed, though, because it’s very significant.”

    Duffy: “It’s not only that it’s not discussed. We never hear it, do we? Whenever there’s any sort of weather event that can be linked into the global warming orthodoxy, it’s put on the front page. But a fact like that, which is that global warming stopped a decade ago, is virtually never reported, which is extraordinary.”

    The full article can be found at:,25197,23411799-7583,00.html