The Souring Seas
Friday, May 8, 2020 Note: there’s a reference to the political situation that I may need to modify after the 2019 Canadian federal election.
Tony entered the café, bought a cup of house blend, and turned into the interior. He noticed the blonde bombshell from Monday morning sitting at a window table gazing wistfully into space.
He wandered over feigning nonchalance and pointed at the empty chair. “Is this seat taken?”
A frown creased her brow as a black cloud obscured the late afternoon sunshine. “Feel free.”
“You might not recognize me, but we’re neighbours.”
She looked down at hands wrapped around her cup. “Sorry. Was I staring? You looked familiar, but I couldn’t place you. Funny, isn’t it, how you don’t recognize your neighbours in the big city?”
Tony placed his coffee on the table but remained standing with his hand on the chairback. “You from a small town?”
She shook her head, spilling blond curls over her shoulders. “Across the harbour in Dartmouth, but a more suburban environment where you know your neighbours’ names.”
He removed his Toronto Blue Jays ball cap and made an exaggerated bow with a majestic sweep of his right arm. A floppy-brimmed Renaissance hat with an enormous feather would have been better, but he couldn’t have everything. “Anthony Atherton at your service, but everyone calls me Tony.”
She smiled, as the sun peeked from behind the cloud. “Elizabeth Manville. Friends call me Beth.”
He pulled back his chair and swept off imaginary crumbs with his hat. “I’ve seen you here several times. Perhaps now we’re acquainted, we can become coffee shop friends.”
“It’s silly. In my line of work, I sit drinking coffee, and then when I’m not working, I come here and drink coffee.”
Tony sat as Beth fiddled with her cup. “Lots of jobs lead to coffee drinking. What do you do?”
She sipped her coffee before looking up. She took an exaggerated breath. “My boyfriend and I are actors. That means sitting in dismal surroundings drinking coffee waiting for endless auditions. If I get a job, I guzzle more coffee while I wait for my few minutes before the camera.”
“How exciting! A film or television actress rather than a stage performer. Should I recognize you?”
She shrugged. “Doubt it. Bit parts in movies and TV shows. Mostly I’ve done commercials, so if you recognize me, it’ll be an insipid soap commercial or something similar. Or a stupid smiling face staring from a magazine ad. For me, acting is neither romantic nor exciting.” She gazed at her cup, tipping it so the remaining coffee almost spilled. “But what about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a student at Dalhousie starting on a PhD in oceanography in September. Our group is studying the effects of global warming on the ocean.”
She smiled. “Sounds fun. Tell me about it.”
“Not sure. I bore people when I talk science.”
“No way! I’m real interested in science and the environment. If the acting bug hadn’t bitten me, I’d have gone to university and studied biology. Hearing what someone studying science does will be fun.”
“Okay. Stop me when I get boring.”
Her smile broadened. “Get going already.”
Tony sipped his coffee, wondering why she seemed like a chameleon shifting between a gloomy Joe Btfsplk and a bright and cheerful Daisy Mae Scragg. He took a deep breath. “Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased at an accelerating rate over the past hundred years. We can attribute the increase to CO2 releases from anthropogenic activities, especially fossil fuel burning and cement production.”
“Hang on, I need more coffee.”
She bounced from her chair and skipped to the counter. Seconds later, she returned. “Right. We’re producing too much CO2. What next?”
“Increases in CO2 will increase temperature, but it’s harder to see the temperature increases in the normal variability. That generates debate about the trends and what harm they cause. But it’s important, and people shouldn’t ignore it.”
Beth shook her head before another smile dimpled her cheeks. “The previous federal government’s attitude was real negative, and what about the latest Ontario government and US administration? They don’t treat it as an important problem. And the Trudeau Liberals talk progressive but subsidize heavy oil production. I’d say they’re all squashing people’s interest.”
“I agree, the current government’s attitude is inconsistent—high-level agreements but little concrete action.”
Beth grinned. She tapped her index finger on the table. “Someone should challenge them, demand to know why they’re taking us down this road to a global ecological crisis.”
“Wow, you are interested in environmental politics.”
“Yeah, whenever my career bogs down. But we’re talking about your research, so get on with it.”
Tony tried to settle his pounding heart as he gathered his thoughts. “Most scientists argue the increasing global temperature causes environmental damage. They advise us to control fossil fuel burning and stabilize or even reduce CO2 emissions. Others say we needn’t panic because solutions will materialize before the problems become too acute. Finally, we have scientists who think the current increases in temperature are anomalies in a long-term downward trend. Some even suggest that increased fossil fuel burning is postponing the start of the next ice age.”
Beth sat up straighter. Her thin white sundress splashed with red and yellow flowers seemed odd for a chilly spring day. It was driving him crazy. “And where do you stand?” she asked.
He took another deep breath, his eyes flickering between Beth’s cleavage and the table. “Global warming should concern us. Even if we accept higher CO2 levels, we need to slow the rate of increase. Nature may handle higher levels, but it cannot accommodate the current exponential increase.”
When she said nothing, he plunged on. “Real engineering improvements, not makeshift quick fixes, are possible, so we need not undertake drastic life-altering changes. But conservation is important to reduce the rate of increase and give us time to develop good solutions. And research is important. We need research to answer the questions leading to our current confusion.”
“That’s a complicated agenda.”
“It’s a complicated problem. Anyway, that was lesson one. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are increasing, much of it caused by human emissions, and the increases are affecting global climate by raising temperatures. Lesson two is about the ocean.”
“Fire away. I’m still listening.”
Tony’s brow furrowed as he gulped his coffee. “You’re sure?”
She banged the table. “I’m sure. Get going!”
“Okay. Half the CO2 entering the atmosphere is transferred to the ocean. If concentrations in the atmosphere increase, they also increase in the ocean because they’re in equilibrium. In the ocean, carbon dioxide reacts to produce carbonic acid, making the ocean more acidic. We measure acidity with an odd unit called pH.”
“I remember that from chemistry—little p big H. It’s a logarithmic measure that’s ass-backward, low numbers mean high acid concentrations.”
He stared, surprised by her understanding of chemistry. She encouraged him to continue by rotating her wrist with index finger extended.
“The ocean is slightly basic with a pH around eight, but it’s approaching neutrality.”
“Right. Seven is neutral, and eight to seven is a real tiny change.”
“Correct, and that change is important because many small organisms have calcium carbonate shells. They’ll dissolve as the ocean becomes more acidic. The increased acidity will, over the next hundred years, make structures like coral reefs disappear.”
She drained the last of her coffee and put down the empty cup. “Sorry to stop you, but it’s time to go.”
She leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I wasn’t bored. Next time, we can have lesson number three. And incidentally, I liked your performance Monday morning. But the dialogue was too much. Try a little less cursing.”
She strutted away, but before she was hidden from sight, her shoulders slumped. She was hiding something he must discover.
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