An acid trip no one wants to go on

In 1910, Dr Crippen, an American homoeopathic physician living in London, attempted to dispose of the remains of his wife, Cora, by dissolving her torso in a bath of acid. It might be hard to imagine, but the world's ocean is turning into a warm acid bath because of excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide gas not only creates a greenhouse effect but also dissolves in seawater to form carbonic acid. Fortunately for humankind, the capacity of the sea to absorb the gas has offset the problem of warming from fossil-fuel emissions.

But now there are signs that the oceans can't take much more carbon dioxide.

In the evolutionarily fine-tuned oceans, a small change in acidity is enough to shift an organism's physiology from building up bony and stony body parts to breaking them down. Coral polyps are the world's most avid skeleton-builders, but they can't build in an acidic sea. Without maintenance from the organisms that build them, coral reefs start to crumble. Coral reefs protect large areas of tropical coastlines and blunt the effects of typhoons and tsunamis, as well as being an important source of food for fish. Many of the world's largest cities are built on tropical coasts.

It doesn't take much to work out that raising our atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels and thereby acidifying oceans will have grave consequences for human societies as well as wild ecosystems.

The trouble is that the 1.4 quintillion cubic metres of the world's ocean is chewed up, processed and spat out again and again by organisms we can't see with the naked eye, and that we know almost nothing about. We do know that these life forms are the most important on the planet for converting carbon dioxide into living matter by the most significant chemical reaction of them all - photosynthesis. In fact, photosynthetic micro-organisms live in a compulsory symbiosis with reef-building corals, but the cohabiting microbes are very sensitive to the overheated water resulting from carbon dioxide's greenhouse effect. It's double jeopardy for coral, therefore.

Apart from reinventing life, the American biologist Craig Venter has more usefully attempted to find out more about these ocean-living microbes. Venter likes to go sailing, and his state-of-the-art yacht is geared up for regular microbe sampling during voyages. The microbial DNA is extracted, and from the sequences he can obtain indications of what kinds of chemical reactions the sea's microbes can participate in.

Obtaining a DNA sequence nowadays is almost trivial, but it is not so easy to work out how bacteria interact, not even in one cubic millimetre of surface water. Once you have the data from the myriad necessary observations, it has to be fed into some sort of plausible model to explain what is happening on the scale of an ocean basin. The latest issue of Science magazine calls for urgent investment in long-term, systematic and international ocean research collaborations so that we can join up more of the dots in the great unknown of the world ocean.

To understand what we are doing to the world's vast oceans we first need to understand the very, very small. If we don't keep the oceans alive and change our sinister energy consumption habits will we, like Dr Crippen's wife, dissolve in an acid bath of our own making?


Caroline Ash is senior editor of Science magazine.

Mark Lynas will return in August.

Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.