The Souring Seas
Thursday, October 1, 2020
Dr. Krueger appeared in Tony’s office doorway early on the first Thursday in October. “You’re finding the focus on courses frustrating, but I can’t alter a valid policy nor justify committing major funds to unauthorized projects.”
Tony shrugged. “I know. Focus is training students for future careers as professional scientists. Steve Matthews constantly rails about it, but it’s so frustrating. Why can’t I get started on the research work while I complete the damn courses?”
“You can. You can spend as much time as you want in the library. If you describe modest experiments that help define your project, I’ll fund them. And you can do something that helps me while applying Steve’s professional training.”
Dr. Krueger paused until Tony looked up. He’d been hiding his growing frustration by staring at papers on his desk.
“The Prime Minister’s seconded me to a national climate change task force. It will be time consuming, so I need you to watch over Miss Parker’s BSc project, much like you did for her work this past summer.”
Tony scowled thinking of his absence the one time she really needed a hand. “Professional development stuff.”
“Her work, and problems she encounters, may be relevant for your future investigations.”
Dr. K nodded. “A reporter asked me about the research you, Jacinta and Rosie have been conducting. I declined her interview request and suggested she approach you. A local radio station interview should help prepare you for international conferences.”
Tuesday morning, the radio station receptionist introduced Tony to Becky Smith, a freelance reporter and interviewer who specialized in scientific and environmental issues. Older students had warned him to prepare for battle with an interviewee-devouring shark, but she appeared young and friendly. With her bouncing ponytail, she could have been an undergraduate student. After a brief description of what to expect, she led him to the interview room.
It contained a desk with a few notes and a microphone that Becky sat behind. She faced a comfortable chair, something like an executive’s desk chair, for her guest. They’d suspended a second microphone on an articulated arm above the guest chair. After a few minutes of idle chat while Tony arranged the papers he’d brought with him, Becky placed large, old-fashioned headphones over her ears, and the interview began.
“Good morning. Today’s guest is Mr. Tony Atherton, an oceanography student at Dalhousie University. Anyone following climate change debates should know about their exciting research on the impacts of ocean acidification on marine life. Mr. Atherton is a scientist studying this problem. Let’s start, by asking him how he became involved.”
She pointed at Tony and nodded her head.
“It started when I was an engineering student. I designed and built the measurement systems that are being used by the biologists studying ocean acidification in our lab.”
“Explain for our listeners what you mean by measurement system?”
“As humanity increases the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, they also increase the levels in the ocean. This increases ocean acidity because carbon dioxide, or CO2 using the chemist’s shorthand, is an acid. The biologists I’m working with are studying the harm increased acidity will have on organisms living in the sea. They needed to measure and control the acidity in their aquaria. I designed the equipment for automated control of the acidity.”
Becky leaned forward with her chin cupped by her hands. Her little smile suggested he was too verbose. “You’re saying you provided the technology they need to conduct their experiments.”
Tony nodded. “That’s correct.”
“Did your team make any important discoveries?”
“My colleague, Jacinta Lopez, made many interesting observations. We think they’re important, but it’s too soon to make a claim.”
Becky leaned back. “What has she observed?”
“A large increase in algal growth when the sea becomes sufficiently acidic.”
“Explain, for our listeners, the importance of that increase.”
“Primary biological production removes carbon from the ocean. It’s one of the natural mechanisms for reducing CO2 levels. These changes should dampen the current trend to ever-increasing CO2 concentrations.”
“My notes say you’re starting work on a PhD in oceanography. Will you also investigate the biological impacts of acidity?”
Tony smiled. “Not all oceanographers are biologists. I doubt I’ll discover anything fundamentally new in marine biology.”
“So, what will you study?”
“I want to investigate how Jacinta’s changes in the plankton affect the pH. Will the biological changes make acidification worse, or will they slow the increase, or even mitigate harmful impacts by reversing the trend?”
“That leads me to two questions related to the current political impasse related to climate change. First, will natural feedback mechanisms mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification or open the floodgates for engineered solutions? And second, is this mitigation a divine intervention? Let’s start with the first question. Can we use natural feedback mechanisms to fix the acidification problem?”
Tony stalled, trying to get his mind around his answers to these disjointed questions without delving into religious controversy.
“You’ve asked me three questions. In response to the first one, I would suggest that many biological systems have feedback mechanisms that correct things when they get too far out of whack. A feedback mechanism for ocean acidification is a reasonable suggestion and Jacinta’s experiments suggest a potential example. But, it’s like lemmings, if I may use them as an analogy. Conditions for the lemmings become unbearable before their drastic feedback mechanism kicks in. Natural feedback mechanisms for ocean acidification may be like the lemmings’ analogy. Before the mechanism kicks in, conditions may become extremely bad, and the cure may be hard to take.”
“And the second part, can we use the understanding you’re developing to manage the problem?”
“If we develop a thorough understanding of the impacts, society could establish mitigation measures based on good engineering. I don’t suggest we can count on these engineering solutions, but they could be beneficial. We must understand the system far better than we currently do if we hope to help nature with large scale engineering fixes.”
“Okay, you’ve just given us the rationale for conducting your research.”
Tony nodded. “We cannot hope to cure the problem unless we understand it and the potential hazards the cure may introduce.”
“And the question of divine intervention?”
Tony wasn’t surprised she didn’t let him sashay around the religious question. But what was her point? Did she want him to malign Jacinta’s religious views and pass her off as a misguided climate change denier? If so, it wasn’t fair.
“I know nothing about theology. I’d rather not answer that question.”
“But climate change denial and the question of divine intervention must arise in your laboratory. What is your layman’s view?”
“I’m not comfortable answering this, but if you insist, I will try.”
A big grin appeared on Becky’s face. “I want to hear your perspective.”
Tony grimaced as he tried to decide what to say without getting into trouble. He took a deep breath and plunged in realizing the interviewee-devouring shark he’d been warned about had him in her sights.
“I don’t believe in God and from my understanding of how the universe works, I’d say God cannot physically exist. I appreciate that many people believe in God and lead better lives and do good things. But this god cannot exist outside the believers’ minds, and it cannot impact natural phenomena or natural processes. So, it cannot generate a feedback mechanism for ocean acidification. That’s my view, but I stress again it’s a layman’s view. I’m not an expert.”
“Thank you for going outside your comfort zone. We’re running out of time, so let’s wrap up by putting ocean acidification in the bigger picture of global warming. Some people argue global warming is so massive a problem we must abandon our modern lives and return to a pre-industrial society. Others say our current global warming is a short respite before the next ice age. Your perspective is somewhere between these extremes.”
“That’s right. Ocean acidification is one aspect of the larger problem of global warming. The world is warming and human activities are contributing to the warming, but the world is always changing and we shouldn’t be against change per se. Human activities, mostly the accelerating burning of fossil fuels, are causing rapid changes that biological systems cannot respond to. We need to institute as many conservation measures as we can to slow the rate of change and conserve the diminishing supplies of oil and gas. This will give the biological systems, and humans, time to adapt to the inevitable changes. We also need to better understand how and why climate is changing. Then we can respond to the changes and perhaps put in place measures to mitigate and even reverse the effects. Better knowledge should also help resolve the controversies and differences of opinion that plague us and allow the divergent opinions to coalesce.”
“Thank you, Dr. Atherton—”
“Mr. Atherton, the PhD is well in the future.”
“Thank you, Mr. Atherton, for your interesting and informative thoughts on this important subject. I must say goodbye to Mr. Atherton and our listeners before my producer cuts us off.”
A small light at the base of Becky’s microphone changed from green to red as the station technicians transferred to their regular noon hour newscast.
“You were great,” Rosie said as Tony marched into the lab half an hour later. “No wonder Ms. Smith called you doctor at the end. You sounded mature and professional, just like the university prof you’ll be in a few years.”
“I don’t care how I sounded. Did I say anything stupid?”
“Well, you should’ve declined to talk about religion, and you called God ‘it’. I didn’t notice any science mistakes. But what do I know?”
“What about Jacinta, was she listening?”
Rosie shrugged her shoulders. “I haven’t seen her. Tim Wilkes said he’d listen. You could ask him.”
Jacinta refused to comment and Tim was positive but not enthusiastic. Dr. Krueger was more helpful, complimenting him but raising a few questions Tony would need to consider. Dr. K also mentioned one disquieting thing. Reverend Terrence Goddard, a religious firebrand and climate change denier had called raining hellfire and damnation down on Dr. K and his team.
The best outcome from Tony’s perspective was a call from Dr. Clive Grainger, an entrepreneurial engineer who imagined the possibility of using high plankton productivity in a low pH environment to produce biomass he could convert into methane or alcohol. Probably an impractical idea, but it showed someone heard something useful.
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