The Road to Environmental Armageddon
The Souring Seas
Halifax, Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Six days after their trip to Porters Lake, Stephen Matthews generated a ruckus in the room where graduate students congregated for coffee. The gaunt little New Englander who started his PhD studies while Tony worked on his masters saw himself as their leading intellectual. He was younger than the other graduate students but disparaged their views. They often wondered if he would take direction from the professors.
Steve revered Jean-Paul Sartre and blathered about Existentialism and other philosophical theories. His research project involved complex mathematical descriptions of oceanographic systems with none of the observational focus of most students’ projects. In Steve’s view, logical deduction and detailed mathematical analysis would uncover the scientific truth without need for observation.
Steve and Tony had locked horns during Steve’s first weeks in graduate school. Did Steve attack him because he was a pragmatic engineer unimpressed by philosophical arguments, or because he was a lean, athletic six-foot-two hunk who impressed the female students? Tony’s friendship with a young woman Steve coveted didn’t help. Whatever the reason, the five-foot-zero Steve Matthews hit the warpath, calling Tony a baby-faced Nordic blond who shouldn’t be welcome in the coffee room. The baby-faced comment struck a nerve because his youthful appearance caused trouble whenever Tony entered a pub. Nothing else bothered him.
He usually ignored the gibes and got on with his life, but this time, the venom in Steve’s voice surprised Tony.
Steve smirked. “An engineer like you should realize the obvious. This concern for plankton blooms and carbon dioxide accumulation has a simple solution. Even your blinkered engineering mind should grasp it.”
Tony heart raced as he struggled to contain his anger. Was Steve referring to experiments where large additions of ferrous sulphate to nutrient depleted surface ocean waters generated substantial blooms? The experiments were interesting, but not definitive, and no justification for Steve’s snide comments. “Those iron fertilization experiments, or do you have a more recent example of growth manipulation?”
Steve made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Those, and efforts at carbon capture. The global warming problem was never the slightest bit interesting.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Simple practical solutions so you’ll be heading to the drawing boards to develop projects that investigate something that’s actually unknown.”
Another student, a geochemist investigating relationships between metals and plankton joined the fray. “I don’t think so. The iron fertilization experiments were interesting, but they didn’t solve long-term problems. They made local, temporary changes in the uptake of carbon with no proof they remove anything from surface waters on extended timescales.”
“And polluters buying carbon offsets by funding these fertilizations is a joke,” Tony added. “They can’t quantify the carbon removed during the experiments. And what about side effects like toxic algal blooms and development of anaerobic zones? No one’s considered those.”
“Really, Mr. Matthews,” Jacinta interjected. She seldom entered these freewheeling conversations. When she did, she always commanded everyone’s attention without raising her voice. “We are doing as you suggest, investigating principles of ecology in the low pH environment we could encounter in relatively few years.”
“You may be, but Mr. Engineer is talking about politics, not fundamental oceanographic processes.”
Tony stood, towering over the diminutive Steve Matthews. “All right, Steve, what’s your point?”
“Not to intimidate anyone, that’s for sure,” he replied, his all-knowing smirk more prominent than ever.
Tony sat, realizing his mistake. He’d definitely let Steve’s barb burrow under his skin. He’d learned not to overreact when outsiders expressed disdainful disregard for his climate change research. An attack from inside the oceanography community, however, surprised him. He took a deep breath. “Okay, no intimidation. What are you saying?”
“Oceanographers, marine biologists, and philosophers should expand our understanding of the environment. It’s not our job to convince politicians they should address an obvious problem. We know the answers to the climate change questions. We should stop wasting time on them.”
“But you know that’s crap. We only recently learned lowering the pH to a critical threshold produces a bloom like the one Jacinta observed. That was unknown and still unexplained. You’re nuts to claim we shouldn’t work on it.”
“But that doesn’t interest you, does it, Mr. Engineer?”
“That’s Jacinta’s question. I’m considering carbon removal on regional or global scales, and how the removal links to Jacinta’s biological observations. There’s nothing wrong with those questions.”
Steve was undeterred. “They’re engineering, not scientific questions.”
“So, that’s the major concern. You suggesting I shouldn’t be in the oceanography department?”
Steve shook his head. “I’m offering friendly advice to a fellow oceanography department student. A proposal like yours will be rejected because it doesn’t investigate a fundamental oceanographic problem.”
“No way,” said the geochemist who’d entered the fray earlier. “The answers to Tony’s questions aren’t known, they’re not trivial questions, and the solutions will be important for society. Why wouldn’t they form the basis for a good thesis topic?”
“They don’t address a fundamental oceanographic question. If you look at the governing principles for thesis topics, that’s a requirement, not an option.”
Steve’s final comment festered as Tony returned to his lab a few minutes later. His suggestion he was offering friendly advice was disingenuous. Industrial emissions of carbon dioxide contributing to global warming may be established fact, but uncertainty about the details and how human societies should respond to the threats remained. They must provide fodder for scientific research.
Tony was confident Dr. Krueger would have a less doctrinaire approach than Steve’s, but he couldn’t ignore Steve’s perspective. He needed a project that investigated fundamental questions arising from Jacinta’s investigations and ventured into areas that interested him.
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