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House of Commons Science and Technology Committee - Ocean Acidification

The House of Commons Science and Technology committee launched an inquiry into Ocean Acidification. Details of the inquiry can be found on the committee website.

The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 17 January 2017

1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia, regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

2. We are not well placed to respond on some of the aspects raised in the Terms of Reference. We instead seek to raise the importance of the evidence of ocean acidification and climate change found in the geological record

3. Data from the geological record is a useful line of evidence in understanding current climate change as we can use analogues from the geological past to understand the nature and impacts of climate change in the present and future. Sudden climate change has occurred before in the geological past. Around 55 million years ago at the end of the Paleocene, there was a sudden warming event in which temperatures rose by around 6 degrees globally and by 10-20 degrees at the poles1. Carbon isotopic data show that this warming event was accompanied by a major release of 1500-2000 billion tonnes or more of carbon into the ocean and atmosphere, the source of which is not precisely known but could be related to volcanic activity or the breakdown of methane hydrates. This additional injection of CO2 made the ocean warmer, less well oxygenated and more acidic and was accompanied by the extinction of many species on the deep sea floor. Similar sudden warming events are known from the more distant past, for example at around 120 and 183 million years ago2, 3. In all of these events it took the Earth’s climate around 100,000 years or more to recover, showing that a CO2 release of such magnitude may affect the Earth’s climate for that length of time4.

4. As has already been established, much of the CO2 released into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels has already been or will eventually be absorbed by the ocean. This leads to acidification of the oceans and potentially adverse consequences for marine biota. Current changes in ocean pH can be quantified by comparison with pH changes estimated from geological records and, alongside monitoring of current conditions and modelling of future effects, this can act as a separate but corroborating line of inquiry into the impacts of increases in CO2 emissions. Research in this area suggests that oceanic absorption of CO2 from fossil fuels may result in larger pH changes over the next several hundred years than any found from the last 300 million yeas of geological records5.

5. The information preserved in the geological record can function as an independent evidence base for anthropogenic climate change, ocean acidification and associated aspects of environmental change. At present, the science underpinning public discourse on climate change is dominated by a limited range of disciplinary approaches and evidence bases, principally atmospheric science and predictive climate modelling, making it vulnerable to critiques of these aspects of the science base, whether or not these are made in good faith. The geological record contains abundant evidence of how Earth’s climate has changed over hundreds of millions of years, including during periods of rapidly increasing atmospheric carbon levels (see Paying greater attention to this independent evidence base, and developing alternative narratives of environmental change which draw on it, has the potential to deepen public understanding of environmental change, and to add resilience to efforts to build the trust of the public.

6. Further information on relevant evidence from the geological record can be found in the Geological Society’s 2010 position statement on climate change and 2013 addendum, both available at


1. Zachos, J.C., Dickens, G.R. and Zeebe, R.E., 2008, An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. Nature 451, 279-283.

2. Kemp, D.B. et al., 2005, Astronomical pacing of methane release in the Early Jurassic period. Nature 437, 396-399.

3. Jenkyns, H.C., 2010, Geochemistry of oceanic anoxic events. Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems 11(3), Q03004.

4. Archer, D. et al., 2009, Atmospheric Lifetime of Fossil Fuel Carbon Dioxide. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37, 117-134.

5. Caldeira, K. and Wickett, M.E., 2003, Anthropogenic carbon and ocean pH, Nature 425, 365.