Posting this about twelve hours late because Hurricane Dorian put a small crimp in activities hereabouts over the past few days.
The Souring Seas
Thursday, March 11, 2021
As Tony trudged up the stairs to their second-floor flat, Beth’s lilting alto voice wafted through the doorway. Probably singing a song from her children’s program for Michael. The silly lyrics of the unfamiliar melody improved his spirits.
Beth shifted Michael to her other breast as Tony stepped into their apartment. “Something’s wrong. Proverbial bad day in the office?”
Tony hesitated, surprised he’d telegraphed his frustrations so obviously. “Marc and I established ground rules for our collaboration, but he left me with a meddlesome problem.”
“Should we talk about it? We haven’t discussed your work, and I miss my oceanography lessons.”
Tony sighed, relieved Beth assumed his concern reflected science problems. “I’m not sure how to begin.”
“Make like a professor,” she suggested as she gently slid back and forth in the glider chair they’d purchased as a feeding station. “Explain the background science and segue into your problem.”
“Segue. You sometimes chose odd words.”
“Hey! I didn’t go to university, but I stayed awake in school and learned some stuff. Quit stalling and tell me what’s bugging you.”
“You remember we said half the human-induced increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide were transferred to the ocean. Some carbon dioxide is temporarily transformed into organic carbon in the form of phytoplankton and converted back to CO2 when they decompose. A fraction sinks to the ocean floor where it gets buried without decomposing. This process is called sequestering of carbon.”
“That’s how diatomaceous earths form from the shells of your diatoms, isn’t it?”
“True, but we’re worried about the organic carbon, not their silicate shells. Any carbon you remove from the ocean lowers the CO2 levels, counteracting, at least a little, the trend to higher CO2 and lower pH.”
“I can follow that, but why do you need low pH diatoms? Can’t the phytoplankton we already have remove the excess CO2?”
“Good question. That’s the focus of today’s oceanography lesson. Nutrients, the chemicals needed to make plants grow.”
“Farmers add fertilizer to their fields to increase plant growth. Why can’t we add these chemicals to the ocean and generate lots of extra plankton and solve the CO2 problem? If we convince people to like plankton burgers, we could end world hunger.”
Tony smiled, her comment reminding him of the long-defunct fad for tofu burgers. “Engineering solutions based on adding nutrients have been proposed. The scale of the additions would be huge, and it’s not clear where we’d get the fertilizer. And side effects of big engineering solutions can cause problems that limit their effectiveness. In this case, extra plant growth would deplete the supply of oxygen anywhere the plant material decomposes.”
Beth shook her head as she lifted Michael to her shoulder for a burp. “I’m getting lost. How does this relate to your ocean pH problem?”
“Sorry; we’re off track. In Jacinta’s first low pH experiment we couldn’t understand how the plankton bloomed so strongly in the apparent absence of nutrients.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“In the present-day ocean, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus are taken up during plankton growth at a ratio of 106 atoms of carbon to sixteen atoms of nitrogen to one atom of phosphorus. These ratios hardly vary. Now, suppose an organism needed much less nitrogen and phosphorus.”
“Like crops that are adapted to grow in harsh environments?”
“Good analogy. If Low pH triggered a reoccurrence of ancient characteristics that let them grow with fewer nutrients, we’d generate a picture like we saw in our experiment. That’s what we’re working on, but we’ve proven nothing. We may be totally wrong, but it could have huge implications for how ocean biology will work in the low pH world we’re moving toward.”
Beth settled the now contented baby in her lap. “Okay, that’s interesting, and we should discuss these subjects more often. They would keep me from becoming focused on dirty diapers. But why did you arrive home carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders?”
“Two problems. First recent observations have shown predation, tiny animals eating the phytoplankton, are more important than I realized. And second, these things are academically interesting, but they’re also important for understanding how engineers like a guy named Clive Grainger could use our research to enhance methane production.”
She settled the now sleeping baby in a cradle before joining Tony on the sofa. “That’s what’s worrying you, isn’t it? I thought you and Steve Matthews sorted out your differences.”
“We did, but the problem of academic versus pragmatic science keeps coming up.”
“That’s like your ClimateChange&U website. You’ll never get away from the conflict between academic and pragmatic research or the conflict between individual response to climate change and governmental or industrial response.”
“You’ve been checking out the website?”
“I told you I needed something intellectual to occupy my mind. Your website was a good starting place. But I’m feeling rather left out. Why haven’t you told me about it? I mean, you started the Canadian site last summer, that nine months ago.”
“Didn’t start until the new year, so only a few months input, and really, it’s not exciting. I’m following the protocols on the US site and collating the carbon usage data anyone submits.”
“But it’s growing nicely isn’t it? You’re getting lots of data?”
“Yeah, it is. I do some quality checks on the data and feed it into the American data set. I only have enough Canadian data to produce qualitative pictures.”
“You know I’m interested in environmental problems. I may lack the technical knowledge, but surely, I could help.
“It would fit with your more environmental activist bent. You suggesting we work on this together?”
“I’d need to understand the science, so I’d still need your lectures.”
“That’s important. Too many people get involved in environmental action without understanding the background. We can work on it together, marrying the scientific reality with the implications for society.”
She leaned over and kissed him. “Good. You already appear happier. And I can turn you into an activist.”
“And I can improve your understanding of the underlying science.”
“It’s a deal,” they said in unison as they high-fived one another. Michael joined in with a wail and a massive burp.
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