The Road to Environmental Armageddon
The Souring Seas
Thursday, August 20, 2020
Thursday morning, Steve Matthews’ voice pierced the background noise as Tony joined the crowd in the oceanography department coffee room. Steve’s pontificating wasn’t surprising, but Jacinta’s reaction was. Tony couldn’t remember a single instance when Jacinta had risen to Steve’s challenges, but she was on her feet doing battle across the table. The diminutive but dignified Jacinta Lopez pounded the table as she towered by five centimetres over the smaller and much seedier looking Steve Matthews.
“That is completely untrue!” she shouted. “We can learn many important things about the response of plankton to low pH waters. You should not disparage our work because it’s based on observations and simple descriptions. Your mathematical formulations and sweeping generalities fail to describe the complexity of plankton and biology.”
Tony stared from the doorway, surprised by Jacinta’s vehemence and the eloquence of her little speech. A little excitement improved her English, she’d even used a contraction.
She whipped around and faced him. “Tony, tell Mr. Matthews about our observations.”
He understood the cause of the conflict. Steve always argued the physical laws governing motion and the interaction between particles explained all important observations in oceanography. He was trying to extend this physical approach to marine biology. He dismissed anyone’s contradictory observations in his efforts to develop a unifying theory explaining everything. The broad principles interested Steve, not the details.
Unfortunately, Tony sympathized with Steve’s perspective. He sought a project that built on Jacinta and Rosie’s results but moved into ecological modelling. His goal was a general picture that integrated their results into the global biogeochemical models used in climate change research. He wouldn’t suggest Jacinta’s detail was unimportant, but he wanted to consider the overall situation, the forest, not the trees.
“Jacinta has shown that some species can synthesise large quantity of organic carbon when pH reaches critical levels. We originally thought it might be restricted to certain diatoms, but recent observations suggest otherwise. Naked, unicellular algae with no need for silica also grow extremely well at low pH.”
“That proves my point,” Steve responded. “The biology doesn’t matter. It’s the general principle, lower the pH and plankton will grow. That’s what we need to incorporate into the models.”
“No!” Jacinta exclaimed. “We have shown that only some diatoms react. You cannot expect plankton with carbonate skeletons to grow as their shells dissolve. We must understand which organisms respond and the biochemistry of the response before you generalizers incorporate it into your models of Gaia and Mother Nature’s grand plan.”
Steve sneered. “And what about God’s plan?”
Tony poured himself a coffee and monitored the discussion. He wasn’t interested in arguments about whether Mother Nature or God controlled things, and Jacinta was holding her own. As Steve and Jacinta continued their argument, he wondered about his own research project. A good underlying hypothesis, one that should even satisfy Steve Matthews’ notions of a proper project gradually took shape. He slipped from the room and returned to his tiny cubbyhole of an office off Dr. Krueger’s lab.
Tony was hard at work half an hour later when Jacinta arrived.
“Are you not having delayed vacation? What brings you here?”
“I’m at loose ends, and Rosie’s struggles while we were both away have me thinking.”
“Tell me what you think after Rosalind’s adventure. I need, how should I say, to calm myself after the discussion with Mr. Matthews.”
“To calm down, that’s the expression, but you should be proud. You answered his criticisms and wisely stayed above the fray when he belittled your religious convictions.”
“Ah, Tony, are you now defending my religious beliefs?”
“I’d only criticize them if they confuse the scientific discourse.”
“Good. Describe your new ideas as you move toward a project proposal.”
Tony glanced at the notes he’d been making. “I haven’t gotten far, but we can start from the basic idea plankton compete for nutrients. Success for different species will depend on numerous environmental factors.”
“This is nothing new.”
He ignored the mild rebuke. “The diatoms in our experiments produce more biomass than other plankton. This would give them an ecological advantage. And second, they’re heavy, so they sink.”
She took a piece of chalk and wrote ‘more biomass vs. faster sinking,’ on Tony’s blackboard and circled them. “This generates a problem. Producing more biomass is helpful, but a high sinking rate is disadvantageous.”
“Oh, I see. Contradictory characteristics of the organisms you and Rosie are studying.”
“True, and we should learn more as we progress. Consider your factors individually.”
“They grow rapidly at low pH and produce lots of biomass for a given amount of nutrient.”
Jacinta pointed her chalk at her first entry. “Fine, and what does that suggest?”
“They dominate the bloom and displace other organisms.”
“And the blooms are unusually persistent.”
“Perhaps that’s related to the high carbon to nitrate ratio. Could they internally recycle nutrients taken up at a more standard ratio to produce carbon-rich biomass as nitrate becomes scarcer?”
“It would be possible but we have no data showing this happens.”
“Should I develop a hypothesis based on these ideas and show it actually happens?”
Jacinta shook her head. “Someone could.”
“But not me?”
“It would be a very biological investigation. Perhaps, not aligned with your talents.”
“Where does it leave me?”
She added a downward-pointing arrow to her second blackboard entry. “What about the higher than usual sinking rate?”
“Ah, I see. More physics than biology, and more related to carbon transport.”
“Yes, partly physics and partly biology and closer to the global biogeochemical models you are interested in.”
“So, this could be the basic hypothesis for an interesting thesis topic?”
“Work on both ideas and consider observations we are making in the aquaria., For your project proposal, employ the aspects that align with your training and really interest you.”
“And you agree enhanced vertical transport of carbon in a low pH environment meets those criteria.”
“You must decide.”
“Dr. Krueger would have to approve.”
She smiled after handing Tony the chalk. “You must convince him your suggestion is solid.”
“Thank you, Jacinta. You’ve helped me put the ideas spinning about my head into order.”
“Now I must find Rosalind and discuss with her what we do next week. Then I must prepare for tonight’s reception at the Consulate.”
After Jacinta left, Tony scrawled across the top of his chalkboard. ‘Hypothesis: enhanced production of various plankton at low pH produces enhanced carbon transport to the sediment and enhanced burial of carbon. This slows the trend to lower pH and may even reverse the trend if the burial is great enough.’ He scowled at his first attempt at a mission statement. It was too wordy, but an adequate starting point.
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