This is my current draft of the tenth chapter of the first part of my climate change dystopia novel, “The Road to Environmental Armageddon“.
The Souring Seas
Monday, August 10, 2020
When Tony arrived at the oceanography department on the morning of Monday August tenth, he found Rosie pacing near the entrance to the aquarium annex.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Yeah, everything. Jacinta left me in charge while she was at her European conference. Everything was fine until Friday, now it’s toast. The pH was decreasing a bit each day like it’s supposed to, and my biomass measurements showed concentration increases were taking off. Then Friday, these stupid strings of goo roamed the aquarium like little vacuum cleaners sucking up all the phytoplankton. Now they’re drunken sailors passed out on the bottom.”
He eased her into the annex. “Whoa, slow down, breathe. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
“Nothing! the bloom’s completely gone.”
Tony stared into the clear water. “What happened?”
“I told you. Friday morning, the pH was 7.61 and everything appeared okay, although the biomass number was a little lower than I expected. When I collected the afternoon sample, something was clearly wrong. Acidity was still okay, 7.60, but the biomass was down. Later when I finished the measurements, they confirmed. Biomass was lower in the afternoon, I mean, a lot lower. Then I noticed the gelatinous muck clogging the electrodes.”
“You should have contacted me.”
“What good would that have done? You were at your workshop with no car. It was late Friday afternoon. You wouldn’t get here for hours.”
“What did you do?”
“I called Tim, and he came right over. He collected samples of the little buggers with a sieve and took them to his lab, and I cleaned off the electrodes. I couldn’t let them stop working.”
“Tim returned and told me they were salps.”
“Salps? What the hell are salps?”
“Tunicates, small gelatinous chordates. They’re efficient predators of phytoplankton.”
“Gelatinous, like jellyfish?”
“Yeah. They’re free-floating, a few centimetres long. Your impellers were sucking them into the electrodes.”
“I took the impeller housings off the electrodes. I had to anyway, and it was easier to keep the bare electrodes clean. All night Friday, I cleaned the yucky goo off the electrodes. Saturday morning when Tim arrived, the distinctive yellow colour was gone. He said salps are like locusts, sweeping through an area eating everything in sight. He suggested we turn off the pH control system, and well, I agreed with him. I was too tired to argue.”
Jacinta arrived as Rosie explained the situation to Tony. She didn’t interrupt them
When Tony tried to comfort the now openly weeping young woman, Jacinta stepped forward. She displayed an unusual compassionate side to her normally imperious character. “Do not worry, mi chula, you did well.”
Rosie looked up. “Should I have kept the system going? I kept making my measurements, but we stopped adding acid.”
Jacinta shook her head as she reached for Rosie’s lab notebook. “You should not worry. The experiment was already a great success. This invasion of killer salps adds an interesting addendum.” Jacinta scanned the last few pages before turning to Rosie. “Sergio, the consulate’s driver, is outside. Should he drive you home?”
Rosie shook her head. “It’s morning and I have samples to analyse. But I didn’t have breakfast. If it’s okay with you, I’ll grab tea and a muffin before I begin.”
Jacinta watched her depart before refocusing on Rosie’s lab notes. She said nothing as she turned the pages while humming a tune Tony didn’t recognize. She cleared her throat, and Tony turned from his fascination with the scene in the tank.
“Miss Rosalind is a fine student. She has provided a clear record with observations for each day and reasons for all actions including the decisions she and Mr. Wilkes made Saturday.”
“She’s a great student and would become a fine scientist. Too bad she won’t be attending grad school.”
“One must make choices. I trust Miss Parker will make the best ones for herself. But this week, I must reward her superb efforts. Should we take her to the graduate centre restaurant?”
“That’s informal, more pub or café than restaurant, and she’s often there for a beer with Tim and me. The Faculty Club would be more special.”
She wrinkled her nose in an uncharacteristic gesture. “But I am not a member. I will engage Sergio and take you, Rosalind, and Mr. Wilkes to a downtown restaurant, the Five Fishermen or DaMaurizio’s perchance.”
“She’d like that, especially rolling up in the consulate’s limo, and I’ll ensure Tim and I dress for the occasion.”
“Fine, we shall do that Thursday or Friday.”
Jacinta passed Rosie’s laboratory notebook to Tony. “Interesting results you should study. You realize the salps will represent an important factor in your investigation of carbon transport.”
She strode away before he replied.
Tony scanned the mix of handwritten notes and computer printout stapled into the notebook as he strolled more slowly to his office.
The latest experiment in the pool aquarium confirmed the validity of their observations from the first aborted experiment. Diatoms grew at enhanced rates in waters with pHs of less than 7.75. And they conducted this experiment in July and August when diatoms shouldn’t dominate the phytoplankton populations. This surprising result confirmed preliminary results from experiments in their smaller aquaria. The highly productive low pH phytoplankters were mostly pennate diatoms, but they weren’t exclusively diatoms. Naked unicellular phytoplankton dominated some hyperactive bloom.
Excess growth at low pH by more species was good for Tony’s embryonic thesis proposal. It suggested the phenomenon would be broad-based, occurring in most or all ocean waters. It wouldn’t include coccolithophorids or other plankton with carbonate skeletons, but at least one example of other major phytoplankton groups exhibited enhanced production.
He had masses of detail to address, but he now knew low pH would increase primary productivity. The follow-up question, how would this affect secondary productivity, predation on phytoplankton, remained unanswered. Could he rely on currently available techniques to link primary productivity and predation, or would he have to investigate the relationships in a low pH environment? Jacinta’s parting shot and Rosie’s observations suggested fundamental changes that would add to his project’s complexity.
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