A malefic wizard has announced to the world that tomorrow he will turn all diluted sea salt into sugar.

What will the environmental effects be?


closed as too broad by Aify, Mołot, dot_Sp0T, Trish, Vincent Jun 15 '18 at 23:03

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    $\begingroup$ Lots of diabetic fish. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Jun 15 '18 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ Sweet death of all marine life. Sugar starts slowly precipitating toward the bottom of the sea. Gulf Stream current goes haywire, northern emisphere plunges into ice age. $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 15 '18 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ There's an easy, answer: It rather quickly ferments and turns into CO<sub>2</sub> and alcohol. $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Jun 15 '18 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ what do you mean with "sea salt"? NaCl or all the salts diluted in water? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jun 15 '18 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for taking the time to edit. I will note that this still feels like a "What if?" question on its face, but it also complies with our scope. As such, I have retracted my close-vote. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jun 15 '18 at 19:46

Having so much sugar diluted in water will trigger a massive fermentation: the sugar will turn into alcohol and $CO_2$ thanks to the action of yeast. The alcohol will kill all the living organism into the water.

Even worse, the lack of magnesium salts will make harder for plants and remaining algae to synthesize chlorophyll, with the result that getting rid of all that $CO_2$ will be harder.

Greenhouse effect will boost and temperature will rise.

Humans will be too drunk to care about extinction.

In some remote places it is possible that sugarite will form, puzzling future archeologists and geologists.

The diluted alcohol, over time, will be converted to acetic acid, so the ocean will become a giant vinegar bowl.

The acid will attack all $CaCO_3$ based rocks, freeing more $CO_2$ in the atmosphere.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Humans will be too drunk to care about extinction. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jun 15 '18 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ Problem is, the sugar solution will probably not ferment to any great degree. Bacteria will feed on the sugar and cause the solution to spoil. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 15 '18 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast, beer and wine are usually done in similar, lower scale. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jun 16 '18 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch - You obviously have never made your own wine or beer. Contamination by bacteria will ruin a batch, and getting good product requires scrupulous cleanliness, plus a source of "good" yeast. Pasteur, for instance, got a start on the Germ Theory by analyzing wine batch failures. At the very least, lots of bacteria will convert alcohol to acetic acid, which is how vinegar is made. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 16 '18 at 11:17

Wow. That's going to be ugly.

Everything in the ocean dies. Period. Some single-celled organisms might can survive, but not many. Prepare for all those life forms to float to the surface and/or wash ashore and begin decaying. The fishing industry just went out of business, along with seafood restaurants, etc.

Bacteria and mold thrive at the coastlines, feeding on the sugar as it dries on beaches. This will be ugly, too, since that kind of out-of-control growth will mess up the local ecosystems.

All the people producing sugar, from farmers growing beets, cane, or other crops up to the factories that refine those plants into sugar are out of work. Sugar is just too easily obtained now. The current sugar production industry is unemployed.

The bacteria will thrive. They will produce CO2 and alcohol. So your atmosphere will, over time, become a runaway greenhouse gas situation as the bacteria overgrowth reach an equilibrium with the O2, CO2, and sugar levels.

Diabetics like me will be doomed. And we can never swim in the ocean again. Ever. We might not even be able to travel to coastal regions, if sugar evaporates like salt does.

The rest of this I'm not as sure of...

Does sugar water stay in solution like salt water? Or does the sugar settle out over time? I believe it eventually settles out. I don't think it wants to remain in solution like salt does. But I could be wrong here. If I'm right, though, your ocean floors will eventually be coated in a layer of sugar for the bacteria to consume.

Does sugar absorb heat with the same properties as salt? If not, then climate change just got unpredictable. (Combining the CO2 from bacteria with the new heat absorption rules...)

The end of entire industries will make life hell. The end of ocean life will make coastal regions a hell of stinking, dead, aquatic life for quite some time. Our food chain will be severely impacted. People will die from starvation -- coastal people, primarily, but people.

Does sugar water have the same density as salt water? If not (or if the sugar does settle out), then you've impacted at least some percentage of ocean-going vessels and the amount of cargo they can carry. Does sugar water interact with ship material in any way? Or encourage microbial growth that interacts?

The collapse of so many sources of food may cause starvation. But even if it doesn't it'll certainly cause major economic issues, possibly up to and including a new Great Depression.

And then the climate changes will doom us all. It's a matter of time before humanity can no longer survive.

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    $\begingroup$ There's still rock salt. Mines would open everywhere for this component of our diet that we used to take for granted and now would be as precious as gold. Macroeconomy and wars would drastically shift toward the white gold, which would be even the more precious because there wouldn't be as much around as sea salt. The sugar industry's breakdown will be only temporary. Sugar will settle down on the bottom of the sea, it will be always cheaper working it the usual way. Of course, in the meantime we will all be close to extinction... $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 15 '18 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ Rock salt is generally derived from old deposits of sea salt, or so I thought? $\endgroup$ – CaM Jun 15 '18 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ As phytoplankton generate 59-85% of the earths oxygen we will have trouble with Oxygen levels in the air once they die. As for swimming diabetics, just make sure your insulin pump is in a waterproof bag and the fast acting insulin is ready to go. $\endgroup$ – Sarriesfan Jun 15 '18 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ I was taking for granted that the evil wizard only worked on the seas, not on ALL existing sea salt. Otherwise, a diabetic who just ate foods containing or seasoned with sea salt will get the shock of his life. In all homes and factories there will be only sugar. All processed salty foods, from bread to potato chips, become sweet. The drafts from the sea will now carry a sticky, syrupy precipitation. I'm pretty sure ants and cockroaches will evolve and build a statue to their new god $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 15 '18 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ Sugar is more soluble than salt in water, so there should be no saturation happening. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jun 15 '18 at 20:58

What everybody said about the sweet embrace of diabetic death, followed by the dizzing embrace of alcoholic death, followed by the sour embrace of acidic death.

I'd like to add one more thing here. This is a molecule of table salt:

Salt Molecular weight: 54.8 g/mol

This is a molecule of sucrose (i.e.: table sugar):

Sugar Molecular weight: 342.3 g/mol

Besides the difference in mass, the sugar molecule is much, much larger.

If the substitution is a one by one thing - that is, each Na+ and Cl- pair is replaced with one sucrose molecule - then the oceans will expand. We would have some immediate tsunamis as the oceans adjust to their new volume. The planet will also get added mass.

Currently our oceans have a volume of 1.35 billion cubic kilometers, which works out to a total of:

$$ 1.35 \times 10^9 \times cubic \space kilometers \frac {10^{12} liters}{cubic \space kilometer} = 1.35 \times 10^{21} liters $$

Each liter of seawater contains, on average, 35 grams of salt. That works out to:

$$ (1.35 \times 10^{21}L) \times (3.5 \times 10^{-2} \frac{kg}{L}) = 4.725 \times 10^{19}kg $$

That is almost $ \frac {1}{100,000}$ of the mass of the planet.

Now, multiply it by $ \frac {342.3}{54.8} \approx 6.24 $. The total mass of sugar would be $2.9484 \times 10^{20}kg$. The order of magnitude of the solution's mass went up by one. It would be like adding $\frac{1}{10,000}$ of the mass of the Earth to itself. At the very least, the orbit of the Moon and of all the satellites would be perturbed. The lower ones would all deorbit, which would be quite the fireworks show.

That extra gravity would probably end up reorganizing the oceans again (after the streak of biblical-proportion tsunamis). Might upset some tectonic plates too. Whatever the biological and chemical conditions did not manage to kill, the mechanical rearrangement of the oceans will.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice way to use math in order to describe the apocalypse $\endgroup$ – Makao Jun 15 '18 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ I would like to vote you multiple times for this answer! $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 15 '18 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ Nice thought, good illustrations, some math. Have a +1 from me. $\endgroup$ – Oleg Lobachev Jun 15 '18 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ Why would the level rise? Wouldn't the sugar be dissolved? $\endgroup$ – user25818 Jun 15 '18 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ I only was taught lies to children chemistry, I thought dissolving didn't change volume until saturation. On further review that seems to be true for sugar, but salt reduces the volume of water 2% so returning to pure water size would have the same effects. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Jun 16 '18 at 14:36

Bad things.

All the fish would die. Salinity is a key factor in any marine environment; freshwater fish can't live with it, but saltwater fish generally can't live without it. Marine life in general would be in for a tough time; some hardier species might survive, but that would be reliant on their food supply also surviving.

The sugar itself would represent a huge amount of bioavailable energy, so something - probably some type of microorganism - would start eating it. Eventually this bloom would die off as sugars near the surface were consumed, since there's (presumably) nobody resupplying the ocean with sugars. (It's resupplied with salt by eroding rocks along the shore, but the wizard didn't turn the salt in the rocks into sugar.)

I have to assume the smell would be pretty appalling, and the extra microorganisms would probably render seawater fairly hazardous to drink (although you shouldn't drink too much of it anyway) or possibly even to swim in. Depending on exactly how the replacement works (by mass? percentage of water content?) the mass of the oceans might go down, which might be bad news for boats, since they rely on being less dense than seawater to stay afloat. However, I don't know if the effect would be large enough for the reduced buoyancy to be noticeable. People probably couldn't float on the Dead Sea any more.

Aside from that, I think the bulk of the ocean itself would be fairly unchanged. (I'm open to correction if anyone has strong feelings on the thermal properties of sugar water.) One thing I'm not totally clear on is how extremely cold water, like at the poles, would react; salt lowers the freezing point, as does sugar, but I'm not sure how the two compare in effectiveness.

Human salt production would be affected, but not impossible. A large amount of salt is processed from ocean water, but it's also mined from ground deposits. There would probably be a temporary shortage while new ground deposits were opened up.

The sugar itself wouldn't last that long unless it was at depth, where nothing is around to metabolize it. Eventually, salt would make it back into the ocean. This would probably be on geological timescales, though, not necessarily human ones.

Oh, and depending on the precise definition of "sea salt", some people who bought overpriced jars of salt from gourmet stores would be very upset with you.

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    $\begingroup$ lol about the overpriced jars from gourmet stores $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jun 15 '18 at 20:00

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