The Road to Environmental Armageddon

 

The current draft of Chapter One in Part One, The Souring Seas follows. I’ll add additional chapters over the coming weeks. My thanks in advance for anyone providing comments after reading this excerpt (or subsequent ones).

 

The Road to Environmental Armageddon

 

Part One: The Souring Seas

 

Chapter One

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Monday, May 4, 2020

Tony Atherton’s phone chirped as he stepped from the shower. He ran naked and dripping to his mobile charging on the shelf beneath his studio apartment’s only window. Wide-open casements on either side admitted cool morning air to his second-floor flat.

A young woman with long blond hair and the posture of a runway model stared from a window in the adjacent building. Her shimmering iridescent blue dress suggested she’d just arrived home after an all-night party. Tony hesitated, momentarily transfixed by the smiling eyes of a neighbour standing only four metres away.

Several heartbeats later, he grabbed his phone as he slithered to the floor. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he exclaimed before tapping the incoming call icon. “Hello.”

“Good morning, Anthony. Jacinta Lopez Martinez speaking.”

“Morning, Jacinta.”

“I hope I have interrupted nothing important.”

Tony glanced at the digital clock beside his bed—8:05. he was sitting naked on the floor, hiding from his neighbour when he should have been enjoying a relaxing end-of-term break. Hilarious perhaps, but unimportant, and nothing he’d discuss with Jacinta.

The 8 a.m. call could have only one explanation. He took a deep breath. “What’s wrong with the aquarium?”

“The matter is the pH control system has failed, and I need your help.”

“Is Herr Professor in yet?” Tony asked, referring to Dr. Heinrich Krueger, their research team leader. “Can’t he solve it?”

“Professor Krueger is at a conference. Only Rosalind and I are here to manage the aquarium, and we are uncertain. I know you have vacation, and I would not have called if it were not important.”

Rosalind Parker—Rosie to everyone but Jacinta—was an undergraduate working for the summer. She and Jacinta were unlikely to resolve mechanical problems without help.

Tony struggled to concentrate on the call rather than the blonde he imagined laughing at his expense. “If you explain what happened, I might suggest something.”

“There appear to be two problems. First, all pH sensors failed. Many algae have grown over the weekend, and they are inhibiting the sensors. Second, all the carbonic acid has discharged into the aquarium.”

“So, the experiment’s ruined. Why not abandon it and start again?”

“We should not stop until we understand the rapid algal growth.”

A picture of rampant growth overwhelming their experimental setup slowly displaced images of the blond temptress. Dissecting the computer records and determining the exact conditions when the system failed were the obvious next steps. But another problem was equally important.

Another deep breath heralded his decision. “I should tackle the problem of electrode fouling. Give me forty-five minutes.”

Tony refused to creep like a cowardly dog in his own apartment. He stood, hoping a bevy of female roommates with cellphone cameras hadn’t joined his neighbour.

The window opposite was empty. He felt vaguely disappointed as he rushed through his interrupted morning routine before dashing to the university.

 

After a brisk march from his apartment, Tony diverted into the oceanography department annex. It housed the ten-metre diameter aquarium where Jacinta was studying the effect of a future low pH ocean on phytoplankton. A thick surface accumulation of algae and smell of decomposing vegetation assaulted his senses. The constant mechanical stirring of the huge tank caused the algal mass to roll and seethe but didn’t disperse it.

He strode from the aquarium to the laboratory he shared with Dr. K’s other students.

Jacinta emerged from her office with the grace of a flamenco dancer. She looked the part with her abundant curly dark-brown hair, brown eyes, olive complexion, and delicate facial features. Add castanets and a colourful flowing skirt, and she’d be ready for the stage.

She swept up to them. “Hello, Anthony. I apologize for taking you away from vacation, and I am thankful for your willingness to help us.” Jacinta’s pronunciation, formality, and unusual expressions were charming but foreign. “Rosalind thinks you will not have breakfasted, so we have coffee and muffins.” She paused with head cocked. “Have you regarded the pool?”

Tony nodded as he scanned the room searching for the promised treats. “Strolled by as I came in. Sickly yellow colour of a cheap curry, not as green as I expected.”

“I also observed the unusual colour. Rosalind has taken samples to the nutrient laboratory and asked Senorita Stewart to hasten the analyses. She promised to provide results by Thursday. Rosalind made more pH measurements a few minutes ago.”

“Average is now 7.26, so up a few hundredths.” Rosie paused, smiling mischievously. “You should visit Cynthia. She’s after your bod, so she’ll do them more quickly for you.”

Jacinta frowned. “Rosalind, you should not say such things. However, we need the nutrient analyses, so, Anthony…”

He stood straighter. Imagining the vivacious Cynthia Stewart’s interest boosted his ego, something he needed after his neighbour appeared unimpressed by his early morning performance. “I’ll talk to her. If nutrients are so important, you should collect extras.”

Jacinta watched as Rosie gathered bottles for the additional samples. “The intensity interests me. The textbooks say we cannot generate a bloom without a pulse of nutrients, but I cannot imagine a reason for high nutrient concentrations. How do we explain such growth?”

Tony hesitated. Something had ruined several months work, but Jacinta was treating the monumental disruption of her plan to wrap up her laboratory work with equanimity. Such a setback would drive other students crazy. “There’s a practical problem we must address.”

“Explain, if you please.”

“We need electrodes that don’t fail.”

Jacinta paused with furrowed brows. “That gives us two reasons to continue the experiment. Can we keep the pH stable between 7.2 and 7.3?”

“I can recharge the acid tanks and set the pH to whatever value you choose.”

“Will the fouling not recur?”

Tony nodded. “We can clean the electrodes every few hours while I work on a more permanent solution. But first, I should determine if that’s the problem. We can’t exclude valve failure.”

Jacinta took two steps toward her office. “I must identify the organisms responsible for the bloom. Rosalind and I shall collect water samples for biomass and species identification. Then she can help you with the electrodes. If she takes over electrode maintenance, you can resume your vacation.”

He frowned, annoyed Jacinta cavalierly rejected valve failure as a credible explanation.

A check of the aquarium control system confirmed her view. The pumps and valves were working.

After the promised coffee and muffins in the graduate students’ common room, Tony instructed Rosie on electrode maintenance. He left her to determine how long they’d function between cleanings. In the lab, he cleared a section of bench and focused on the fouling question.

Rapid water flow, he hypothesized, should inhibit growth on the electrodes. For that, they must force water past the membranes with motorized impellers. His immediate task was to design and construct the modified electrode assemblies.

As Tony sketched electrode housings, he imagined plankton growing in shallow coastal waters during the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods. These were periods when oceanic pH was lower, in the range they’d accidentally produced in Jacinta’s ruined experiment. His imaginings included dinosaurs grazing in hot fetid swamps with abundant vegetation.

Had massive plankton blooms like the one in Jacinta’s experiment contributed the biomass that generated the world’s oil and gas deposits? Did her experiment suggest human-induced climate change was pushing the natural world into a new period of exceptional primary productivity? Would it generate massive accumulations of organic carbon in new oil and gas deposits?

Imponderable questions, but one thing was clear. Jacinta’s experiment presaged results that would impact their understanding of ocean acidification. She’d estimated a tenfold increase in growth rate, and several characteristics of the bloom made no sense. Would low pH become a critical factor in the global ecological response to climate change? Could it disrupt the way industrial societies functioned?

 

To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

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