Chapter Nine

The Souring Seas

Chapter Nine

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Several days later, Tony sat in Cuppa Java mulling over his research project possibilities when Beth rushed in.

She stopped before queueing for coffee. “Don’t go anywhere. I need a favour.”

Beth returned with pastries and two steaming cups. One had a string and paper tag draped over the rim.

“Is that tea?”

“Yeah, herbal tea. You got something against tea?”

“No problem. I thought you were another coffee addict.”

She took her tea and a sticky bun before pushing the tray toward Tony. “Well, I’ve like gone off it. But you’re getting me away from the favour I need.”

“Sorry. What’s the problem?”

“I’m going to the Laurentians next week on a photo shoot, and I’d like to visit my sister and her kids at a cottage in the Muskokas. I’ll get to visit and schmooze with Ontario film people, but I need someone to water my plants.”

He stirred sugar into the coffee she brought him. “A cottage in the Muskokas. Ritzy, someone must have money.”

She rolled her eyes. “Her husband’s a Bay Street banker. He either has money or pretends he does. I suspect the latter. He’s spending weekdays in Toronto and going to the cottage for weekends.”

They discussed house minding logistics before Beth placed her elbows on the table and leaned forward, chin cupped in her hands. “If that’s under control, you can tell me the latest on the acidic ocean problem.”

“The last time we talked, Rosie and I were planning to collect samples in Porters Lake.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Complete waste, we found nothing interesting there or on several other field trips. In the lab, however, we’ve shown that a common diatom species transforms itself into a new form when exposed to acid.”

“A mysterious form of an old organism rather than a new one?”

“It brings us to natural selection, today’s oceanography lesson. Natural selection is the process of genetic modification that allows species to evolve. This is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and it’s well established scientific fact, not an unsubstantiated theory. It describes the process by which species change over time.”

Beth almost jumped from her seat as she chomped on a second sticky bun. “I’ve read Origin of Species. I should be able to follow this.”

Tony paused, wondering why Beth had developed a taste for first tea, and now fattening sweets.

He summarized the evolutionary principles. “The transformation we’ve seen in the lab can’t be the diatoms evolving in response to pH change. It happens too quickly. This means their ability to adapt to low pH conditions must have lain dormant for millions of years, perhaps from the age of the dinosaurs. One possibility is our diatom’s ancestors developed a structural change enabling them to benefit from low pH during an age when it decreased slowly. They passed the instructions for this structural change from one generation to another for millions of years. Now, when the modern diatoms were exposed to low pH in our experiments, the dormant mechanism kicked in.”

“Are you saying diatoms from the age of dinosaurs existed for all this time without evolving?”

“I’m sure they evolved, but they haven’t lost their ability to adapt to pH change.”

She licked her fingers and pushed the tray with the last bun closer to Tony. “And low pH makes them revert to a more ancient form?”

“Perhaps in a way. The low pH changes them into a form that shares characteristics with the ancient one, but they cannot have maintained the ability to revert. You can’t simply reverse the evolutionary changes that have occurred.”

“You should be careful who you tell this story to. Someone could make a science fiction movie with a mad scientist exposing birds to acid and turning them into dinosaurs. Crows would be good. They look like they’re halfway there already.”

Tony laughed. “You’re right, I should be careful what I say. None of these speculative ideas are proven. Don’t tell anyone what your crazy scientist friend is telling you.”

“I’ll just post it on Facebook… Only joking. At least I won’t post anything if you do a good job looking after my plants.”

Tony rose, picking up her keys. “My turn to make a speedy exit. Have fun hobnobbing with the intelligentsia in the Muskokas. I’ll see you in August.”


Tony rushed into the bright sunshine of the year’s hottest day. He was late for an appointment with Dr. Willard Wharton at the offices of a company specializing in water quality modelling.

Dr. Wharton was a physical oceanography professor with an interest in water circulation models. He was spending a sabbatical year investigating practical applications of those models. That made him an ideal source of independent advice related to Steve Matthews’ concerns.

“Steve is fundamentally correct,” Dr. Wharton concluded after half an hour’s discussion. “You must focus on the basic physical or biological oceanographic principles of your problem. The justification for the work can include the relevance to society, but the faculty will insist it delves into unknown science. Developing new arguments that encourage politicians to pay attention to climate change is not adequate.”

“But we’d make a major step forward if we convinced politicians to take proactive action on climate change?”

“We would, and you should develop those ideas. If you were in a Department of Environmental Policy and Planning, they might be a suitable thesis topic, but not in the Department of Oceanography.”

“So, what should I do?”

“Consider the scientific investigations you’ve described over the past half hour and how biogeochemical models could help you understand the observations you and your colleagues have made.”

“I don’t understand. How does application of existing models help?”

Dr. Wharton sighed. “Models that solve your problem won’t exist. You must identify unresolved questions from the ongoing work you’ve described and develop experiments and models that help resolve the questions. The focus is not on the models but on the unanswered questions like the ones you’ve already raised. The models are tools.”

Tony glanced at the upscale rosewood furniture and a large aquarium with tropical fish. The place more closely resembled a fancy lawyer’s office than an oceanography professor’s consulting company. Dr. Wharton was defending academic purity in opulent surroundings that reflected the application of scientific research to pragmatic problems.

“What about convincing politicians to respond to the climate change challenges? Or convincing the deniers they’re wrong? Or developing engineering solutions to these problems?”

“What can I say? You’re showing your bent for the engineering rather than the academic science side of your questions. Use those arguments to justify the study and discuss the relevance of your discoveries. They can’t be the focus.”

“Isn’t that rather harsh?”

“I’m overstating the case to help you understand my colleague’s perspective. It’s one you must understand.”

Tony paused, puzzled by Dr. Wharton’s deadpan expression. He wondered if he always showed so little emotion. “I see. But you don’t restrict your investigations to these narrow academic channels.”

“I don’t. If you sign up for my water circulation modelling course, we can investigate these boundaries and how circulation models might be useful to you.” He paused, pulling a sheet from the papers on his desk. “Here’s a website you should visit. It’s hosted by a small group of environmental scientists promoting a different approach to climate change response. No high-powered campaigns like those conducted by Al Gore. They envisage a grassroots approach, encouraging individuals and companies to make small, but useful, contributions. They argue millions making small contributions can be as effective as the federal government making a large one.”

“You’re suggesting this, rather than complex scientific arguments, is the mechanism to convince the government.”

Dr. Wharton nodded. “You should check them out and decide how you can contribute. Now I must bring this discussion to a close.”

Tony reached his hand across the table. “Thank you, sir. It’s been an enlightening discussion. I’ll let you return to more productive work.”

“Don’t worry Tony. I remain an academic at heart. I’d never consider time spent helping an inquisitive student as unproductive.”


At home, Tony looked up ClimateChange&, a site developed by five American scientists who shared a basic philosophy for promoting climate change action. This group of climate activists in different American cities used their climate change website as the backbone of a campaign to mobilize the masses. They also had an ongoing blog, and Twitter and Facebook links for two-way communication.

Their brainchild targeted computer-savvy young adults interested in saving their environment from the impacts of climate change, but not necessarily ones with detailed scientific knowledge. It had three main objectives. First, explain the science of climate change to an intelligent and receptive audience. Second, explain how citizens could reduce their carbon footprints by making relatively small changes to their lifestyles. They showed how these contributions could generate community-wide improvements without massively altering individuals’ lives. Third, use the mass appeal of this grassroots effort to convince governments from municipal to federal levels to join the party.

The site had been operational for one year. In that short time, they’d attracted a substantial following of potential climate change crusaders who documented their personal carbon-footprint-lowering efforts.

Tony sent messages to the website describing his own experiences. He also suggested a new thread on their forums about similarities and differences between Canadian and American approaches.


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