The Souring Seas
Friday, June 19, 2020
The large amounts of biomass generated by Jacinta’s diatoms without large inputs of nutrients intrigued Tony. Did this diatom species out-compete others for recycled nutrients, or produce biomass using less plant food?
Tony asked fellow graduate student Tim Wilkes one afternoon in the Muse. “Is the efficiency of nutrient exploitation the key to the extra production?”
“It’s unquestionably an important biological consideration.”
“But from the global perspective, can it produce enough biomass to make a difference?”
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Tim replied. His accent was Canadian, but his parents were English, and Tim used many colourful British expressions. “I understand where you’re coming from, but it’s too soon to answer that question. Which diatoms are we considering? Is it restricted to diatoms? Are other plankton capable of this behaviour? Then there’s your nutrient question. You can’t draw down carbon unless you have a nutrient source.”
“Jacinta’s producing masses of biomass without high nutrient inputs.”
“Availability of nutrients will limit the removal. To generate carbon removal that raises pH, you must pump in nutrients. Where will they come from? Ask yourself that.”
Tony paused, staring at his beer. Tim was raising objections but buying into Tony’s scenario, including aspects he hadn’t articulated. “Okay, lots of unknowns, but isn’t it a good question to pursue?”
“I don’t deny it’s an interesting question. Just don’t expect a simple answer.”
“That’s okay. I want a complex problem that generates enough results for a good thesis.”
Tim stopped with his stein halfway to his mouth. “Sure, and the experiments to generate those results will probably use the technology you developed in your master’s thesis, so it sounds like a winner. Sketch it out and run it past the good doctor. But are you sure it’s the project you want to investigate?”
“Yeah, why not? It suits my math and engineering background and isn’t too biological.”
“But it would drop you into the climate change controversies. I’ve seen your reaction to Jacinta’s Christian perspective. Do you want to battle the right-wing fundamentalist deniers of climate change?”
Rosie appeared behind Tony. “Or other deniers. I thought you guys were waiting for me?”
Tony poured her a beer from the pitcher they often ordered. “I suggested you meet us when you were free.”
She shrugged. “What are we talking about?”
“About how Tony will steal the results you’re generating and base his thesis on them,” Tim suggested, smiling.
Rosie’s eye’s widened. “You’re not, are you?”
“I’ll wait until you and Jacinta publish them. Then I can use them to calculate the potential impact of your little buggies on oceanic carbon dioxide uptake.”
“That’s why Tim says you’re planning to battle climate change deniers and other insignificant opponents like our political leaders.”
“Yeah, that’s what I could propose as a thesis topic.”
Rosie turned to Tim. “Is it a good idea?”
“If he can deflect the controversy he’ll find himself embroiled in.”
Rosie’s brows furrowed and her eyes darted from Tim to Tony. “Why’s it so controversial? Isn’t it well established?”
“Scientists think so,” Tim said. “But reducing CO2, emissions will cause major changes in some industries, and smaller, but not insignificant, ones for everyone else.”
Rosie stared at her beer. “If that’s what we must do to avoid environmental degradation, shouldn’t we do it? And don’t most people agree?”
Tony hesitated, drawing circles in the moisture left on the table by the beer steins. “Masses wish to participate but don’t know where to start. And others worry about how government regulations might affect their personal businesses or activities. It’s a huge mess with large-scale uncertainty.”
“Which means we must define things more clearly and limit the uncertainty,” Tim added.
“On that point,” Tony said, raising his glass, “I agree with Tim.”
Rosie shook her head. “But that means you’re leaving it to the politicians to do something.”
“We have no choice,” Tony replied. “The political process or individual actions must take charge. No external authority will decide for everyone.”
“You mean like God,” Rosie said.
“Yeah, I forgot, your father’s a minister. But you still rely on people making the right decisions. Our job is to help that process by providing the best possible knowledge.”
“And that’s your plan?”
Tony nodded. “Yeah, that’s what climate scientists are doing, but sometimes it takes extra persuasion.” He tilted the pitcher, judging its contents. “Another beer, Tim, while she nurses hers.”
Rosie’s questions raised concerns Tony’d considered as he transitioned from an engineer into a scientific researcher. Engineers have a short-term perspective, tackling a problem, developing a solution, and implementing it. The oceanographic researchers didn’t appear to share that sense of urgency, even when facing a serious far-reaching problem like climate change.
Tony raised his refilled glass. “And what about you? Will Jacinta’s results force you to change your project’s thrust?”
Tim clinked his glass against Tony’s. “Don’t see why. Your large aquarium observation is interesting, and I agree with Dr. K, it could lead to something profound. But you’re considering impacts many years in the future.”
“True, but if it’s as big a deal as Dr. K implies…”
Tim shook his head. “My project investigates the effects of much smaller reductions in pH on the heath of important fishery species like lobsters. The field work is mostly done, and impacts could occur much sooner.”
“Lobsters?” Rosie asked. “They don’t have carbonate shells, so why worry about pH?”
“Increasing acidity will affect many physiological functions involving acid-base reactions.”
Rosie scowled, scrunching her nose. “I don’t understand. If we’ll have problems in a few years, why does Dr. K focus on this long-term issue?”
“Because,” Tony replied, “the shorter-term impacts are less drastic. They’ll be hard on individual species and may cause changes in the ecological balance, but tenfold increases in phytoplankton productivity would send the whole marine ecosystem into a tailspin.”
Rosie turned to Tim. “Is that right?”
“I could argue the details, but we’ll still recognize the ecosystem we’ll encounter in ten years. We may not recognize the situation in 2200 if we do nothing about increases in carbon emissions.”
“So why aren’t we doing more?” Rosie asked. “It seems obvious Canada won’t meet its Paris Accord targets, and the US has pulled out of the whole process. They’ve even expanded their use of coal in power generation.”
Tony offered his opinion. “A psychological barrier prevents people addressing nebulous problems with ill-defined consequences far in the future.”
Tim nodded his agreement. “My wife’s a psychology student and she’d basically agree. But it’s not that simple. We solved the problem of acid rain from sulphur and nitrogen gases in car exhausts and also the ozone hole. But people refuse to give up cigarettes, and the current global warming problem seem intractable.”
Tony rubbed his upper lip with his left forefinger. “We solved problems amenable to technological cures that weren’t too difficult or expensive to implement.”
“Or too disruptive of people’s everyday activities,” Rosie added.
“So, I should modify my definition of a problem society can’t or won’t address—nebulous problems with no acceptable technological solution and distant ill-defined consequences.”
“We’ll need ministers like Rosie’s father, or behavioural scientists like my wife to convince people, and their governments, to address those problems.”
Or his new environmental activist friend Beth, thought Tony as he strolled home after a third beer. Tim had added another level of complexity to the climate change dilemmas he was becoming increasingly embroiled in. Their solution would require an approach that was broader than a PhD project.
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