The Souring Seas
Monday, May 11, 2020
Monday morning, after a weekend worrying about how well his new electrodes functioned, Tony ignored his temporarily unemployed status and returned to the lab. He needed to check his electrodes, but mostly, he wanted to be there when Dr. K returned.
Professor Krueger stormed into the laboratory brandishing Jacinta’s summary of their endeavours. He was a large exuberant man and storming around was his normal behaviour.
He stopped before the whiteboard that occupied the only piece of available wall. “Good morning everyone. I compliment you on a job well done. Your results are intriguing, perhaps important, but we have much to do before anyone shouts Eureka from the rooftops.”
“Good morning, sir,” Jacinta replied, formal as always. “I trust your trip to Germany went well.”
“Yes, thank you. An interesting meeting, and you’ve produced a fascinating new problem. It’s your discovery, Jacinta, what do you propose?”
“We must identify the organism causing the bloom.”
“I agree. That’s important, and I can help with identification.” He paused, took three steps and stared through the window. He strode back to the whiteboard. “Isolating it and determining how it responds to pH change will follow. For that, we’ll need smaller aquaria.”
Tony smiled. When Dr. K found something interesting, he invariably jumped in. If Jacinta wanted to control her experiment, she must stand up to him, but she was too respectful. Dr. K’s jumpy demeanour suggested he was already formulating ideas that were broader than Jacinta’s.
Dr. Krueger charged on. “This is a job for you, Tony. I’m not paying you for this week, but this is important. If you begin today, I’ll pay you retroactively from the first.” Tony nodded and Dr. K continued. “We’ll need aquaria with pH control like we have for the large pool?”
Tony smiled as he stepped to the whiteboard. An extra two weeks pay was nothing to sneer at.
He sketched a series of three-dimensional boxes festooned with electrodes. “Presumably you’re imagining static aquaria, not flow-through systems. We’ll need pH meters and electrodes, more than we have even if I scrounge the ones in the pool.”
“Buy them. We shouldn’t dismantle the pool system.” Dr. K turned toward Jacinta. “You should repeat the latest experiment.”
“What about the nutrient question?” she asked. “We do not understand where the bloom found the nutrients to support itself. We see no high nutrient concentrations in our samples, or in monitoring done for other aquaria at Dalhousie.”
Tony waved his hand. A colleague’s water sampling device deployed on a mooring in the Northwest Arm, the small inlet that supplied seawater for the university’s aquaria might have the answer. “Trevor Martin’s continuous nitrate recorder should tell the tale.”
Dr. K nodded. “That’s good. Keep on top of Trevor. I hope his often-unreliable sensor is working properly. We can investigate the nutrient question when the new aquaria are working.”
Tony considered techniques to control fluctuating pH in smaller aquaria as Dr. K and Jacinta droned on about biology. A tricky engineering problem was better than nebulous biological considerations. He reconnected when Rosie joined the conversation.
“Last week, Jacinta sent me to the library to investigate other low pH environments. I learned that many oceanside lakes have fresh water sitting above denser salt water washed in from the sea. Are there lakes like that around here?”
“Porter’s Lake may be one,” Tony suggested.
Dr. Krueger waved a pencil like a conductor with a baton. “Surveys of saline lakes are a good idea, Rosie. If a lake has runoff from acid rain, we might see low pH and ocean salinity. Put Porter’s Lake on our agenda, but first, we must get the aquaria working.”
Dr. K beckoned to Tony on his way out. He strode to his office and closed the door before saying anything.
“Last week’s observations are intriguing. We must contemplate how they’ll lead to other investigations. But first, we should firm up your duties for the summer.”
Tony’s brow furrowed. They’d discussed plans for the summer during April while he finished a paper on his master’s project results. Was Dr. K adjusting his priorities? “Yes, sir. I’m to manage the aquarium system and pursue short-term research you’ll outline for me when I return next week. And in September I’ll formally register for my PhD.”
“Correct, and the aquarium management job has become more complex as we discussed just now. The experiments I was considering no longer interest me.”
“Sir, you want me to focus on the engineering problems?”
Dr. K sighed. “Rather like your master’s project, but, yes, that should be our near-term priority.” He paused, staring out the window. “Jacinta will concentrate on biological aspects of these intriguing new observations. You should watch Jacinta’s efforts and consider how you might build a thesis project on that foundation.”
“A biological study building on Jacinta’s observations? Other climate change research might be more interesting.”
“Jacinta trained in a school with a traditional biological program. She’ll develop a comprehensive picture of her observations. I’m not suggesting you abandon your training and become a traditional biologist.”
“Then, what are you suggesting?”
“That you keep an open mind. Monitor Jacinta and Rosie’s progress and consider how their observations might inform a project that suits your interests and talents.”
“So that’s my task. Establish protocols for controlling pH in smaller aquaria?”
“With Rosie’s help. Then you can watch over experiments she conducts on Jacinta’s behalf.”
Tony borrowed pH electrodes that wouldn’t be needed until September from a Chemistry Department teaching lab and equally idle computers from the Chemistry Student Resource Centre. When he reached the aquarium annex with his new equipment, he realized Rosie was a step ahead of him. She had six sea-water-filled aquaria on a bench along one wall of the annex. He installed the electrodes and other plumbing, transferred his control program to the six computers and wired everything. By noon, they were ready to experiment with controlling pH in smaller aquaria.
Their first experiments with no plankton in the aquaria were unsuccessful. All six drifted to lower pH despite the conventional understanding that the natural buffering capacity of seawater would generate an upward drift. He added a second control loop that introduced sodium carbonate and reprogrammed the computers.
Experiments with plankton inoculated from the large aquarium also failed. Two grew rapidly, an observation that intrigued Jacinta, three grew at rates similar to those in the big aquarium, but in one, the plankton died. An experiment Rosie ran with added nutrients gave similarly confusing results—added nutrients had little impact on the growth rates.
Dr. K made frequent visits as they struggled to control pH in their new aquaria. He waxed poetic about their work and its potentially earth-shattering implications for climate change. He repeated his comment about being on the cusp of a significant breakthrough and never expressed frustration with their lack of progress. By month’s end, his happy-go-lucky approach had worn thin.
The ongoing climate change discussion in the graduate students’ coffee room was equally frustrating. A twit named Steve Matthews droned on about the Gaia Hypothesis, claiming the biological system could look after itself without intervention by climate change scientists. Add climate change deniers on the Christian right who insisted God would look after everything, and you had a recipe for Earth-destroying inertia.
If Jacinta’s results were as important as Dr. K insisted, shouldn’t they make a concerted attempt to solve the problems, jumpstart the research, and announce the results to the world?
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