Chapter Seventeen

The Souring Seas

Chapter Seventeen

February-March, 2021

The morning after Michael’s birth, Tony returned to the lab intent on extending the preliminary experiments he conducted over the Christmas break. He had two lectures to attend and hoped to get in a little lab work done before visiting Beth and Michael in the hospital.

After the second lecture, he and Marc Lavoie, another student in pre-proposal limbo, paused near several desks and a whiteboard watching Rosie fuss with one of her experiments. She was a farm girl who hovered over her experiments, treating them like a bunch of recalcitrant piglets. Tony turned to Marc. “Will our plan work for you?”

Marc nodded his head. “We can put natural assemblages into your aquaria and adjust the pH of some. Observation of the changes in species composition should help define my future experiments.”

“And I can measure differences in biomass accumulation. But I also need settling rates.”

“How will you estimate them? Tanks with artificial turbulence won’t be realistic.”

“Scoop out aliquots of plankton after growth is well-established, transfer them to settling columns, and measure how fast they settle. Then I’ll model the effect of natural turbulence.”

“Or run experiments until we have measurements for growth rate and species succession, turn off the turbulence, and let them settle in situ.”

Tony sketched an experimental flow chart on the whiteboard. “Easier to measure growth rate in the aquaria and settling in the columns. What I really need is settling rates for the individual species I grew over Christmas.”

Marc nodded. “Make predictions based on growth and settling rates for the various species. Then compare the results to net growth and settling in the experiments with natural assemblages. It would be an imperfect test of your approach.”

“I’d need the composition of the natural assemblages.”

“You’d get that from my measurements.”

Tony banged his palm on his forehead. “Duh, I’m being stupid. But is it fair? Sounds like I’ll be gaining from your efforts but you won’t get much from me.”

“Species identification and estimating abundance are labour intensive. But if you keep the pH under control and look after all the other measurements, we’d have a fair split.”

Rosie joined them and gazed at the whiteboard for several seconds. “Weren’t the experiments you ran over Christmas a temporary intrusion?”

Tony turned while waving the felt marker. “We won’t get in your way. Jacinta insists she’s finished with lab work. And you must soon focus on writing your thesis.”

“Yeah, Dr. K won’t approve any more experiments, but I don’t like it. Lab work is far more fun than writing a thesis or studying for exams.” She paused, glancing at her watch. “Have to go, lecture in ten minutes.”

Marc watched her leave. “Don’t be hard on her. She knows you think she should go to grad school, so no point belabouring it.”

“I’m not, but she’s smart, she just said she likes working in the lab, and she has a head for research. And what’s her future with a BSc in biology?”

Marc laughed. “Don’t worry, she has it figured out.”

“Oh yeah? She’s been confiding in you? She’s never told me her plans.”

“Nothing weird. She told me about her high school sweetheart and their plans. Education degree at Acadia, then marriage and life running his farm augmented by income from her teacher’s salary.”

“I hear it’s tough making a living farming. But being from Prince Edward Island, you’d know that.”

“Damn right. Farming is the Island’s lifeblood. No farmers in my family, but it’s tough. Most farm families have a secondary income.”

Tony stood in the window watching Rosie stride to her lecture. “Okay, Rosie has it all planned, but you know what they say about the best-laid schemes…”

“Yeah, the wee sleekit cow’rin tim’rous beastie’s plans, they all gang aft agley. My favourite poem.”

“So, you’re into Robbie Burns, are you? Odd for an Acadian from PEI. Should we return to our discussion?”

“Okay, we have a solid foundation for both our projects. Jacinta’s confirmed her main observation. She’s convinced the change responsible for the original bloom is genetic, not a structural response to stress. She needs to publish the results and defends her thesis and respond to the inevitable questions from skeptical scientists.”

“And we let someone else conduct the experiments that confirm or refute her more controversial ideas about process. But the primary production increase is real.”

Marc nodded. “Enhanced growth happens, and changes to the community structure happen. That gives a biologist like me lots of interesting questions to investigate. And you can delve into the geochemical modelling questions and what it means for society.”

“But there’s a huge unknown. Predation.”

“Gives you something to ponder. Our courses, and the damn comprehensive exams won’t disappear, but for now, we can get a head start.”

“But how do I handle it? Jacinta said predation would be an issue I’d have to address when those stupid salps gummed up her second big experiment in the pool.”

“She’s correct. We’ll be considering from our different perspectives the impact of predators on species composition, growth rate, and settling. And we can’t assume the interactions will be the same in a low pH environment.”

“But we won’t include predators in these preliminary experiments.”

“That’s how I see it. And if we generate anything good, we’ll produce a paper.”

“And I might learn something that relates to engineering fixes.”

Marc laughed as he headed for his office. “Steve Matthews has a point. You appear more interested in engineering problems than academic papers and ivory tower science.”

Marc’s parting comment left Tony in the quandary he’d often found himself in over the past few months. Why couldn’t he simultaneously address academic questions related to the effects of lower pH on global biochemical cycles and pragmatic problems like one suggested by an engineer who heard his interview with Becky Smith?

Clive Grainger was exploring the possibility of using enhanced low pH phytoplankton production for methane production and pollution reduction. He had a bench scale simulation of carbon removal from treated sewage by low pH plankton assemblages. It was already producing positive results, and Tony’s involvement as an oceanographic advisor kept him in the loop.

To answer the academic questions, he would investigate how low pH plankton increase biomass without access to additional nutrients, and how biomass is sequestered. To answer the engineer’s questions, one must understand how low pH phytoplankton extract nutrients from a pollution stream. Burial of biomass in the sediments wouldn’t interest the engineer, but the linkages between biomass production and nutrient uptake would be critical for his work. Why couldn’t Marc and Steve understand how these supposedly divergent interests were closely related?

*****

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