Chapter Twenty-One

The Souring Seas

Chapter Twenty-One

February 2023

A year later, Tony’s research project chugged along as he accumulated the data he needed to describe plankton distributions and behaviour in a low pH ocean. Beth’s website interviews gained popularity as she ventured from interviews with east coast actors and songwriters to a more diverse range of national and international celebrities. Her confidence grew along with their popularity, and soon she was finding inventive ways to sneak her own environmental activist attitudes into the process. Her views enhanced the sites popularity and kept Tony busy ensuring her statements never ventured into opinions they couldn’t defend with solid scientific understanding. Unfortunately, the expanding web presence attracted a different sort of criticism from climate change deniers.

Prior to Beth’s involvement, criticism was almost entirely science oriented. The new critics raised political and philosophical issues rather than scientific ones. Some were carefully considered arguments that led to interesting conversations. Others were irrational rants that made wild accusations with no hint of logical arguments to support them.

One evening, Beth poked her computer screen with her index finger as Tony entered their apartment. She was sitting on the sofa with her laptop open. Michael was sleeping beside her. “I can’t deal with this guy. He makes real nasty vindictive attacks couched in flowery biblical language. He calls me a whore and you a Satanist and threatens us using terms like ‘the wrath of God will descend upon you’. Those are insults and threats. Can he get away with that just because he uses biblical words? I can’t generate a meaningful discussion with people like him.”

“Who? Does he sign his name?”

“The Reverend Terrance Goddard.”

“Oh, him.”

She looked up, eyes wide. “You know him?”

“Ages ago he had a run in with Dr. K. He’s irrelevant, a crazy windbag from a fringe church with fifteen people in the congregation.”

She slammed her laptop shut. “I’m sure it’s more than fifteen, and because it’s local, I can’t ignore it. Some of his comments are outright threats. What’s with these churchgoing people, anyway?”

“Don’t imagine he represents religious people. His band of misfits isn’t recognized by other churches.”

Michael stirred. Beth looked down trying to lure him back to sleep. “But they claim to represent the true perspective of real Christians.”

“It’s hogwash. Thousands of contributors to our site are churchgoers. Think about Jacinta, she’s devoted to her church and has conservative views, but she’s a dedicated environmentalist. And what about Rosie? They’re the ones you should consider, not Goddard.”

“Many dedicated Christians and adherents to other religions contribute to our appeal for a ground up approach to climate change action. They must hear these attacks. Shouldn’t we help them counter the bogus claims of our opponents?”

“Careful. We have many opponents. Some agree that climate change is a real problem, but argue that others, national governments mostly, should be responsible for action. Many point to China and India arguing they should carry more load. Our website has argued since the beginning that individuals shouldn’t wait for governments to resolve these problems. We should start now, each of us doing our little bits.”

Beth unbuttoned her blouse and settled the now openly disgruntled baby at her breast. “How should we handle Goddard and people like him?”

Tony shrugged his shoulders. “All sorts of climate change deniers. People who insist the climate isn’t changing, or if they agree it is, they claim it is mostly a natural phenomenon. Goddard and some other fundamentalist Christians say God will look after believers. Others point at the geological record noting global temperatures have always fluctuated.”

“And the ostriches who refuse to consider the problem?”

“The site provides the scientific evidence for climate change in simple terms that anyone can understand. What else can we do?”

“Fine, you’ve presented the logical scientific stuff, but we need philosophical or social and political arguments in addition to scientific ones. And Goddard still scares me. I have this terrible feeling something he does will bite us.”

Tony shook his head. “Enough of this negative stuff. Tomorrow’s Michael’s birthday. We should organize presents and a birthday cake.”

Beth laughed, looking down at Michael quietly suckling. “He’s too little for that. We should fight like dogs to save the environment. If we don’t, the world he faces when he’s our age will be the sort of hell I wouldn’t inflict on anyone.”

“Not even Reverend Goddard?”

“Not even Reverend Goddard.”


As winter turned to spring, Beth focused on Michael and their website. Tony incorporated his observational data into global ocean climate models. The data collection phase had been important, and his efforts to make the measurements as realistic as possible challenging, but nothing like modelling biological responses to a future low pH ocean.

Biological systems are complex and responses to changing environmental conditions hard to predict. Tony spent hours in the library trying to augment the understanding of the biology he’d gleaned from his courses. He’d bounced his ideas and questions off Marc Lavoie and Tim Wilkes at weekly sessions in the graduate student centre pub.

Tim looked up as Tony approached their table with a beer in one hand and several large rolled up printouts in the other. “Hey, how goes it with our new world, Ptolemy.”

“Why Ptolemy? Because I have maps rolled up like ancient scrolls?”

Tim laughed as he unrolled one. “Sort of, but more because Ptolemy was the world’s first map maker, and that’s what you’ve turned into, a cartographer extraordinaire.”

Marc, always the purist, objected. “Ptolemy wasn’t the first cartographer, but he was a pioneer and wrote a huge treatise on the subject.”

Tim shrugged. “Whatever. What have you got for us?”

Tony chugged some beer and set the mug aside. “The best estimates I can find for global distributions of all fifty of the species I’m studying. It’s been a huge effort trying to collate everything known about these damn bugs.”

Marc rolled out several maps shaking his head as he did so. “These will give you overestimates of the real distributions because the routine you used to merge the data is causing too much spreading in directions perpendicular to major currents.”

Tim pointed at the Sargasso Sea. “Look at satellite images of ocean colour. They’ll show you the distributions of all plankton are higher on shelves and in the major current systems like the Gulf Stream. Areas like this are more or less devoid of plankton, but you’re showing significant concentrations.”

“So, manipulate the data to produce more coherence along topographical boundaries like shelf edges and along the current systems?”

Marc nodded. “You should have similar distributions for the various species that are displaced from one another as they find their favoured temperature and nutrient conditions.”

“Thanks, guys, I can do that. It’s just computer manipulation, no need for additional digging in musty old textbooks.”

Tim drained his stein and stood. “Gotta go. My damn thesis won’t write itself while I sit here drinking beer. I’ll leave you guys to it.”

Marc spread out more of Tony’s charts using Tim’s empty glass and various other objects to hold them flat. He took a pencil and drew shapes on the charts. He nodded his head as he admired his artwork. “This will work. If we ignore the places where your extrapolations spread into barren waters, you can already see a pattern.”

Tony rearranged the charts to show the flow of high concentrations of various species from tropical to sub-arctic waters. “You’re right. It looks good.”

“It won’t be easy to parameterize all this given the spatial and temporal variability in primary production, but I can see the patterns you’re trying to develop. You’re generating interesting pictures. Maybe we should call you the new guru of global plankton distributions.”

“Give me a break! First Tim says I’m a modern-day Ptolemy and now you suggest I’m a plankton distribution expert. I need advice on the best way to convert these pictures to a measure of productivity in a low pH environment, not stupid accolades.”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to sound facetious, but your pictures are interesting, and, I think, useful. You can use them along with satellite data on overall biomass to approximate biomass of your various species in the present world. Then use your factors for biomass enhancement at low pH to scale things up.”

“That’s too easy. No one will accept it.”

“I disagree, start simple and add detail as necessary.”


During the weeks that followed, Tony revised his pictures of global distributions and growth rates for the fifty major plankton species that showed enhanced production at low pH. The next step was incorporation of this biology into the physical oceanographic models. He found the parameterizations of the process were rough approximations and no currently available model had incorporated enough biological processes. Tony used the approach he and Marc identified at the pub to develop the relevant mathematical relationships. He then compared model results with known observations and established the inherent uncertainty in the model predictions. He then scaled up the present-day results using his growth factors for a future low pH ocean.

By summer, Tony had solid pictures of the abundance and growth rates for his fifty species using calculations he could defend. That left him with the determination of future rates for settling from the water column and decomposition in the sediments. He would need to parameterize these processes in a low pH ocean before he could estimate the impact on the global carbon cycle.

By December he’d made adequate headway and developed enough interesting observations to justify starting to write. A paper he prepared for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco would be the first time he’d present his results to international experts.

Would his results be accepted? Or would the holes they shot in his arguments return him to square one?

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