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Life of Pi’s acidic island a warning for our warming world

The recently released film Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee and based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, is a fable for our climate change times. Much of the plot involves the struggles of a teenage…

Pi finds a strange and beautiful island where life can’t survive. wildfox76/Flickr

The recently released film Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee and based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, is a fable for our climate change times. Much of the plot involves the struggles of a teenage boy named “Pi” Patel, trying to survive a shipwreck in which his family dies. With resonances to the Noah’s Ark biblical story, Pi becomes stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker.

Pi is a piphilologist, meaning that he has learnt to memorise the numbers constituting π, the record for which, according to the Guinness World Records, is 67,890 digits. Pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is an irrational and transcendent number, meaning it has an infinite number of digits in its decimal representation. All of this may give us insight into the character and mythical import of the film’s protagonist.

Initially in the lifeboat along with Pi are an orangutan who has lost a baby, an aggressive spotted hyena and an injured zebra. The hyena eats part of the zebra, then mortally wounds the orangutan, at which point Richard Parker leaps from under the tarpaulin and kills the hyena.

After many trials, Pi and Richard Parker reach a strange island made of plants that Pi eats. It has a forest, fresh water pools, and a large population of meerkats that sustain Richard Parker. At night, however, the meerkats flee to the trees and Richard Parker to the lifeboat.

Pi watches from a branch as the island’s fresh water turns acidic, digesting fish that have died in the pools. He sees that the water around the island is filled with fluorescent jelly fish. Pi finds a human tooth inside a flower. He decides the island is carnivorous and decides to leave with the tiger in their boat.

The fabulous nature of this part of Pi’s story later suggests to Japanese investigators of the ship’s sinking that Pi is not telling the truth.

Castello Aragonese is almost as strange and hostile as Pi’s acidic island. Gabriele Margapoti

Castello Aragonese is a small island which really exists in the Tyrrhenian Sea near Naples. Bubbles of carbon dioxide rise from volcanic vents on the seafloor and dissolve to form high concentrations of carbonic acid that make seawater corrosive. That real island offers insight into the acidification of the world’s oceans, as they absorb increasing amounts of anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide thanks to our excessive burning of “archived” photosynthesis fuels (oil, coal and natural gas).

Like the floating island Pi and Richard Parker discover, the island of Castello Aragonese creates beds of vivid green sea grass and sustains swarms of translucent jellyfish and algae. Yet no other life survives in its waters. All the world’s oceans are predicted to become this acidified by 2100 with severe impacts on small lifeforms in the ocean.

The pH scale measures acidity in terms of the concentration of hydrogen ions that substances release. It runs from zero (highly acidic) to 14 (highly basic) and is logarithmic (small numerical changes representing large effects). Seawater is usually slightly basic, with a pH around 8.2. CO2 emissions have already reduced the pH of surface sea water by about 0.1, meaning the water has become 30% more acidic. Surface pH is predicted to drop to a further 1% by 2100. At that point (because pH involves a logarithmic scale), seawater will be 150% more acidic than it is now.

Even if our CO2 emissions were stabilised today, it would take tens of thousands of years for ocean pH to return to normal. Coral reefs and the small creatures that sustain the food chain for whales, for example, would perish, the oceans will become so corrosive (like those of the waters around Pi’s island) that the shells of many small sea creatures will simply dissolve.

The acidic island of the Life of Pi film contains a subtle, artistic warning for humanity. The Ark of Pi released a tiger rather than a dove when it reached dry land, and when the tiger reached land it didn’t look back to help its human rescuer. In Richard Parker the tiger we may be seeing the not too pleasant face of Gaia.

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  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Thomas suggests Life of Pi is a fable.

    Fables are moral lessons. The Ant and the Grasshopper, for example, teaches us a moral lesson about hard work - it doesn't give us scientific guidance on how to prepare for cold weather.

    I'd suggest the article mixes fable with analogy - arguing Life of Pi gives us some physical understanding of how global warming damages the ocean.

    Are there risks in mixing the two? Or is the moral lesson so important that we can use any tenuous link to science to support it?

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    1. Greg Edeson

      PhD candidate at School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James, I'm a bit confused by your response.

      Are you suggesting that the island from life of Pi isn't an illustration of a hostile, corrosive sea?
      Are you suggesting that the links between that island and the Italian island (similar biota) are false or irrelevant?
      Or are you suggesting that the ocean isn't acidifying and that forecasts aren't for similar chemistry (and then biology) for our oceans?

      Or are you saying that there's no moral dimension to the acidification of our oceans?
      I don't think there's a risk in using graphic imagery to illustrate a present problem. A key part of preparation is creating a mindset that is receptive to action.
      People who accept the risk they're facing are much more likely to be ready to act.

      If only we had some credible policies to act around...

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Greg Edeson

      Greg, I've got no problem with a fable that teaches 'If you damage the earth there are consequences'.

      But if you turn this fable into a scientific argument - which the article appears to do - you have to make sure the data is relevant and sound.

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    3. Cameron Hoare

      Industrial Chemist

      In reply to Greg Edeson

      Greg, It is difficult to know where to begin when dealing with this. Having worked in industries that use seawater for cooling for many years I am endlessly amazed by the misinformation on seawater "acidification" put out by even people who claim to be scientists let alone a lawyer as Mr Faunce apparently is a lawyer.

      If I remember correctly Alan Jones was taken to task by some media watchdog for some small error about climate science which would be a molehill compared to this mountain of misinformation…

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    4. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Cameron Hoare

      Mr Faunce appears to have a better grasp of Ocean Acidification than you Cameron

      From FAQs about Ocean Acidification from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
      (WHOI is the world's largest private, non-profit oceanographic research institution.)
      http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=83380&tid=3622&cid=131410

      Your claim "It is my understanding that, at this point in time, there has been no measurement taken anywhere which indicates that there has been any decrease in seawater pH in the worlds…

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  2. David Clerke

    Teacher

    Are we supposed to take this article seriously? This even beats the Greens candidate that said the world was being overfished as anyone who had seen Happy Feat would know.

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    1. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to David Clerke

      David, i think it was Happy Feet, not Feat - and I guess art has always attempted to illuminate and take off from reality - the lie that tells the truth. I can see the Analogy Faunce is making

      Having not seen Happy Feet I can't comment, but I'd be willing to bet the anonymous politician cited was also alluding to a parable.

      And yes, the oceans are being over fished.

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  3. Chris Harper

    Engineer

    I'm sorry, but the only response I can make is what utter twaddle this is.

    The CO2 we are emitting will not, I repeat, will not, make the oceans acidic. It may render it slightly lass alkaline, but no more.

    The sea life that exists evolved in a world where the CO2 levels were an order of magnitude, at least, greater than today. They will not suffer. In fact, the limiting factor in the deposition of CaCO2 in seashells is the CO2 concentration. Increasing the carbon dioxide levels in seawater, under laboratory conditions, results in faster and thicker shell growth.

    Sheesh, natural daily variation in pH levels in coral reefs exceed anything human activity is forecast to accomplish.

    This article, like so much else, is nothing but scaremongering alarmist fantasy.

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    1. David Clerke

      Teacher

      In reply to Chris Harper

      I understand Mr Faunce is a lawyer and ex colleague of Lionel Murphy which may explain a few things.

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Chris Harper

      From Chris Harper

      Claim 1. The usual nonsense about terminology - the first indicator that the claimant is clueless and repeating misunderstood talking points.

      Answer
      "Misunderstanding: Liquids with high pH values don’t have acidity; they only have alkalinity.
      pH values above 7 are commonly referred to as “basic” or “alkaline.” These common terms can be confusing, because pH values do not directly measure the concentration of bases in the solution. pH values above 7 still measure the acidity…

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    3. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike,

      Seriously, give over.

      I am well aware that when I went to school pH was a measure of H+ concentration in a water based solution. For the sake of the utter drivel this bloke wrote does it really matter?

      In laymans terms, the seas aren't going to become acid. They just aren't. If you require me to express that as H+ concentration won't rise higher than a pH of 7 then so be it. Take it as read.

      You are not seriously defending this claptrap are you? I would have thought that, as not just an alarmist, but a reasonably educated one, you would be more embarrassed than most that he was on your side.

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    4. Matthew Albrecht

      Postdoctoral Researcher at Curtin University

      In reply to Chris Harper

      "I am well aware that when I went to school pH was a measure of H+ concentration in a water based solution. For the sake of the utter drivel this bloke wrote does it really matter?"
      Then why bring it up?
      "In laymans terms, the seas aren't going to become acid. They just aren't."
      Maybe, but I never saw the author write that they would become acidic. I did see him write that they will become more acidic. Which is perfectly accurate terminology.

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  4. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    The Professor may be a philosopher but he certainly is no chemist. Even if the ocean pH has fallen from 8.2 to 8.1 (one could argue about the statistical significance of this) then it is still alkaline. Some Calciferous animals survive quite nicely in fresh water, at pH values that are actually slightly acidic (viz freshwater mussels).

    The pH chemistry of the oceans is one of the most abused topics in the climate change debate. Indeed the natural variation in ocean pH is in terms of acidity or…

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      Oh please. If you want to pretend to be a scientist Peter at least get it right.

      And to all the other fake experts who have attacked Thomas Faunce's article - the giveaway is your lack of references. I have provided three - from the world's premier oceanographic research organisations.

      * the silly argument over terminology.

      Ocean acidification refers to the process of lowering the oceans’ pH (that is, increasing the concentration of hydrogen ions) by dissolving additional carbon dioxide…

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    2. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      At it again Mike. Quoting sources and references you have googled and which you don't understand.

      Nothing you cited actually contradicts anything I said. But I don't expect you to understand that.

      Please don't lecture me about the meaning of pH. Aqueous chemistry is my speciality. I have visited WHOI and I have friends there. Of course pH is a logarithmic scale. I repeat, a 26% increase (if real) in H+ concentration is nothing when compared with the natural variation. And indeed the measurement…

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    3. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      Peter,

      There is no point. If Mike is seriously going to defend this stuff then there cannot ever be a meeting of minds. Further back and forths will just waste your time.

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    4. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Chris. Do you have a reading comprehension problem. Sommerville has temporarily abandoned the good ship Denial and left you lot to sink.

      "I have visited WHOI and I have friends there". LOL

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    5. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      Peter Sommerville (aka Walter Mitty) has reversed direction faster than you can say "bs artist".

      Apparently his current position is that "it [The Woods Hole Institute FAQ] is far more conservative than you suggest".

      I can live with that climb down. So what does it say. Here are some sample quotes.

      "The danger from ocean acidification is related to the current rate of change, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 expected, and the magnitude of change of atmospheric CO2 forecast if we keep…

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    6. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      I can read Mike, and more importantly I understand the chemistry. You can select whatever quotes you like but clearly, in this case as in others, you are out of your depth.

      Read the whole page in context instead of cherry picking as you always do to justify your case.

      I spent the first 12 years of my career researching aqueous chemistry and have always maintained an interest. There are no lessons you can teach me.

      I have a healthy debates with my friends at WHOI.

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    7. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      The chorus of Dunning Kruger** afflicted climate science deniers who have descended on this article are obsessed with Professor Faunce's legal qualifications.

      From Sommerville "The Professor may be a philosopher but he certainly is no chemist"
      From John Coochey "I understand Mr Faunce is a lawyer and ex colleague of Lionel Murphy which may explain a few things."
      From Cameron Hoare "I am endlessly amazed by the misinformation on seawater "acidification" put out by even people who claim to be…

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    8. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      My my, what a tirade. Take a Viagra Mike. You are becoming boring.

      Faunce is not a chemist, nor are you. Which is interesting. In the past you have hectored me about my qualifications, which remain an Honours Degree with majors in statistics, mathematics, physics and chemistry, plus a lifetime of experience in research and management.

      Apart from your Google skills, and your demonstrated computer skills, exactly what qualifications do you have to claim authorativeness in this topic? I am intrigued to hear an answer.

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    9. Grant Burfield

      Dr

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      Fair suck of the sauce bottle Peter! Mr Hansen's qualifications and professional experience are listed in his Conversation profile. Haven't you read them? Here they are in quotation marks -

      " "

      Impressive, are they not?

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    10. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Grant Burfield

      Seriously, these back and forths with people like Mike are striking me as increasingly pointless.

      With the scientific argument for the 'A' component of AGW collapsing at an almost daily rate I am left feeling that the alarmists are starting to react to their increasing sidelining.

      Julia's pointless carbon tax is pretty much their high point, forever, and relevance deficit syndrome is starting to set in as they see a bleak future of half a dozen tatty signs with their mates at tiny demos, and derision from everyone else.

      What is the point of continuing to feed these trolls?

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  5. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    "All the world’s oceans are predicted may become this acidified by 2100..."(sic)
    This article is as simplistic as it is badly written.
    "..seawater will be 150% more acidic than it is now".
    It can be very misleading to use percentages off a low base. If you fill an Olympic size swimming pool with water at a pH of 7 and add 1 drop of lemon juice you have just made it acidic. If you then add 2 more drops then you have then increased the pH by a massive 200%.

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Whaaat?

      A complete failure of logic, science and arithmetic. You do realise the difference between acidity and pH?

      "Misunderstanding: Percent change in acidity isn’t the same as percent change in pH.

      When acid is added to a solution, the concentration of hydrogen ions (acidity) increases, and the pH decreases. People frequently confuse pH with acidity—pH is the scale on which acidity is expressed, but it is not the same as acidity. We can correctly compare the acidity at two different pH…

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    2. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Good spotting Mike,
      I should have used the word acidity and not pH in the last line.

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      @Steve Hindle

      No you are still "not even wrong". You have no idea what you are doing.
      The answer is in the Ocean Acidification FAQs that I gave you.

      As Professor Faunce points out "Seawater is usually slightly basic, with a pH around 8.2. CO2 emissions have already reduced the pH of surface sea water by about 0.1, meaning the water has become 30% more acidic. Surface pH is predicted to drop to a further 1% by 2100. At that point (because pH involves a logarithmic scale), seawater will be 150…

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    4. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike,

      Your comments betray your lack of knowledge and understanding. Solutions with low pH also have alkalinity. Many freshwater rivers have pH values of 6.6 to 6.8. But they also have alkalinity of around 10 MGM/l CaCO3 equivalent.

      My point is all natural aqueous systems have alkalinity. Alkalinity is one measure of the buffer capacity of aqueous solutions but it is not "the" measure. And by definition increasing H+ concentration will always reduce alkalinity. So you are wrong.

      The pH of aqueous solutions is actually a very complex topic, best left to professionals rather than well intentioned amateurs. If you really want to understand then I refer you to Morgan & Stumm.

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    5. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      @Peter Sommerville

      Since I did not discuss alkalinity in my comments above, I can only assume that you are objecting to the two quotations from the FAQs about Ocean Acidification from the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme.

      If you notice the link to that FAQ starts with - "darchive.mblwhoilibrary". The "whoi" refers to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who are the authors of those facts.

      You right Peter - this is serious - all those WHOI scientists with their advanced degrees and…

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  6. Rod Stuart

    logged in via Facebook

    Is there no limit to the leftist ignorance that comes forth from the ANU?
    This nonsense is disgusting, when one considers its source.
    There is NO global warming. There is NO climate change beyond natural variations.
    There is NO rise in sea level that is significant.
    There is NO change in ocean pH that is in your wildest dreams greater than the day to day or even hour to hour variations in nature. Even when CO2 concentrations were 2500 times the current concentration, atmospheric CO2 does not affect ocean pH.
    There is NO greenhouse effect of which CO2 is a part. Get over it.

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    1. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Rod Stuart

      Rod,

      I wouldn't say CO2 has no effect. If we give the unforced CO2 effect an arbitrary value of 1 then the IPCC and other alarmists are claiming the positive feedback effects push the total effect to between 3 and 5, depending on the level of hysteria.

      In fact, real world observation is making it pretty clear that negative feedback effects, whatever they may be, are pushing the effect below 1. Greenhouse effects from CO2 are probably real, but they look, in the real world, to be pretty trivial.

      Saying there is NO effect just gives the alarmists a legitimate reason to attack you. Just be straightforward and point out the reality that there is little effect, instead.

      I agree about ANU leftist nonsense tho. This article takes the cake.

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Chris Harper

      This is like WUWT. The cranks there all have their own pet theory on why global warming is not happening - they only thing they agree on is that those "lefty warmists scientists" must be wrong.

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    3. Emmet Fox

      PhD Candidate in Sociology

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Hi Mike.

      Some unbelievable comments here - you have your work cut out for you. The Conversation's comment section is notorious for its density of uninformed opinionaters. I wonder if its something to do with hailing from the prestigious technocratic or academic fields that sometimes makes people a little deluded as to the power and grandiosity of their words.

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    4. Grant Burfield

      Dr

      In reply to Emmet Fox

      Hi Emmet,

      "The Conversation's comment section is notorious for it's density of uninformed opinionwaters".

      Welcome to the club.

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    5. Grant Burfield

      Dr

      In reply to Grant Burfield

      er. ..opinionaters (is that a word?). Perhaps opionwaters is what will happen after our floods here in Brisbane. My flabber would be totally gastered, totally let me tell you, if there isn't an article on it in the Conversation very soon. Climate change 'n all.

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  7. Harvey Westbury

    Not being a dinosaur

    I thank Rod Stuart for clearing that up. Very re-assuring.I wonder whether his nickname is Ostrich?

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  8. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    I note that Thomas Faunce failed to note the use of CGI in the making of the movie.
    Castello Aragonese illustrates more the effect of a supersaturated carbon dioxide solution more akin to what is found when a soft drink bottle is first opened, To use this as an illustration of our future is as fabulous as the mythical island.
    I find it puzzling in the discussion to date that discussion has been limited largely to pH rather than considering the chemistry of the "soup" that ocean water is. While the National Geographic is an interesting magazine, it should be remembered that it is still considered suitable reading for doctors' waiting rooms.
    The failure to address multiple variables and their interactions when projecting into the future is bound to be inaccurate.

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      "Castello Aragonese illustrates more the effect of a supersaturated carbon dioxide solution more akin to what is found when a soft drink bottle is first opened, ..."

      Absolute nonsense. Note that Dowling provides no reference for his claim. This is made up rubbish. A soft drink is supersaturated with CO2 because it is under pressure. When the pressure is removed, the CO2 is released as bubbles. In the case of Castello Aragonese, the bubbles of CO2 are coming from volcanic vents on the seafloor…

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    2. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Despite what Hansen says, Philip, your comments are quite astute. The chemistry is far more complex than simple carbonate equilibria. One also has to consider the borates, the silicates and the phosphates. Zealots always oversimplify.

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    3. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      I would have thought that everybody would know that water pressure increases significantly with depth. Hence the phenonomen of the "bends" in humans.
      The fact that carbon dioxide bubbles escape would generally be considered a probable sign of supersaturation, as does a significant change in pH locally.
      Buffering is a chemical topic that is covered in both undergraduate chemistry and biology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffer_solution
      Of course, I didn't want to complcate my earlier comment by observing that the tranfer of carbon dioxide to the sea involves the interaction between two fluids. Fluid dynamics is complex enoigh when there is only one fluid.
      The "join the dots" climate scientists are out of their depth when considering these variables.

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