The Souring Seas
San Francisco, Thursday, December 14, 2023
Tony Atherton was in an upbeat mood as he prepared for an early morning interview on the penultimate day of the AGU meeting. His paper had been well-received, and he’d heard numerous positive comments about ClimateChange&U. He had time to kill as he strolled from his hotel past Union Square to San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Jewellers and upscale clothing boutiques decked out for Christmas caught his attention. That evening he could visit the stores looking for presents for Beth and Michael.
Delegates scurried through the main lobby of the convention center. Tony ducked behind a pillar while he located the media room on his site map. He scanned the lobby to get his bearings and joined the stream heading in the correct direction. When he saw the sign indicating interview rooms, he separated from the crowd heading to large meeting rooms where plenary talks were held.
The interviewer, Ms. Samantha Loveridge, had been hired to publicize the work of conference delegates. She introduced herself and thanked Tony for agreeing to participate.
The informal venue, two comfortable armchairs separated by a low table with a technician videotaping the interview, reminded Tony of Beth’s interview set-up. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity to explain the significance of my observations.”
For several minutes, she asked questions that allowed Tony to describe his work. Then she switched gears.
“I’ll leave the details of the science aside and discuss the implications of your hypothesis on society.”
Tony hesitated. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the change in focus. He’d been set to describe interesting opportunities for field biologists to investigate natural low pH marine environments, but she was in charge.
“I can’t talk about effects on society. I can only identify potential environmental impacts if our observations are correct.”
“Describe that world.”
Tony held up his right index finger. “We’ll see an ocean that doesn’t support organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons. Most corals and other micro-organisms with carbonate skeletons will disappear. No coral reefs and large changes in the planktonic organisms that dominate community structures.” He paused for a breath. “The loss of coral reefs will change the physical habitat for organisms that hide within the corals. We can’t predict the impacts of such ecological changes.”
“Scientists have already discussed these problems.”
He nodded before adding his second finger. “We’ve observed another large ecological change that will favour certain phytoplankton and produce large amounts of organic material with a different chemical structure. We don’t know the ramifications of this major change in ecological structure any better than we do the disappearance of calcium carbonate skeletons. My calculations suggest it will dampen or even reverse the trend to lower pH.”
“You’re saying that it has at least one positive effect as well as others you can’t predict.”
Tony shook his head before dropping his hand back in his lap. He didn’t want to appear badgering.
“Calling these changes a positive effect is misleading. They should ultimately reverse the pH trend and lower carbon dioxide levels, but we can’t sit back and wait for nature to solve the global warming problem. By the time this mechanism kicks in, we’ll have experienced many ecological impacts. Habitat destruction will be extensive, millions of species will go extinct, god knows what else.”
“Sounds like you’re describing societal responses rather than scientific observations.”
“Not really. Society, not just scientists, must decide how we respond. The scientist’s job is to describe the scientific basis for the environmental changes we anticipate. Before natural reversal of current pH and CO2 trends occurs, we’ll see sea level rise, higher water and air temperatures, more extreme weather, and many ecological changes.”
“Your scientific understanding will inform societies decisions?”
Tony smiled. He understood where she was heading. “You’re indirectly asking me to venture from scientific principles and facts where I may have some expertise to questions of how society should respond. I can relate my ideas, but they’re the opinions of one concerned citizen, no more important than your opinion or the next guy’s.”
Ms. Loveridge’s bland expression changed to a mischievous smile. “Okay, with that caveat, what should we be doing?”
Tony took a deep breath and launched into the need for individuals to reducing their use of fossil fuels. He suggested the nebulous long-term nature of the problem would limit government action unless individuals led the way.
Ms. Loveridge shuffled her papers, and Tony noticed she now had a page from the ClimateChange&U website on top. He wasn’t surprised. The interview had clearly headed in that direction. “Are you suggesting we should be like modern-day Thoreaus and forego our pleasures and lead minimal lives?”
Tony rolled his eyes. She’d latched onto a misconception that often arose. “If we commit to the small things I mentioned earlier, we could reduce our CO2 emissions by twenty or thirty percent without adversely affecting our lifestyles. We should expect lifestyle changes, but not enormous ones, and some would be improvements. If millions of Americans and Canadians can make a real impact and send a strong message to our governments at municipal, state and federal levels. We don’t have to live in cabins by ponds, but those drastic changes might be improvements for many.”
“Anything else in your formula for society?”
“Research is crucial. The climate change controversy over climate change suggests we need a better understanding.”
“Your early training was in engineering. What about large-scale engineering solutions?”
“Medium rather than large scale engineering solutions are feasible, but we must tread carefully. One issue with engineering solutions is the potential for unwanted side effects. Research into potential side issues is necessary before we go down that road.”
“We’re running out of time, and there’s one other topic I want to mention. I’ve read that one of your colleagues said God has a plan to save us from climate change, so we needn’t worry about it. What’s your reaction?”
“The initial experiments my research builds on were conducted at Dalhousie University by Dr. Jacinta Lopez Martinez. She’s a devout Catholic and finds inspiration and guidance from her beliefs, but she never claimed she was following a plan God laid out for her. It doesn’t matter if the changes are driven by simple physical, chemical, and biological forces, or God’s will. We must help nature deal with the stress we’re putting on her by pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Jacinta never suggested we let God look after everything.”
“We should leave it there. Thank you, Mr. Atherton.”
Tony strode away confident he hadn’t said anything he couldn’t defend. He was also happy with his fifteen-minute presentation to the large opening session on global change in the oceans. He’d successfully answered all questions and had positive feedback from colleagues after the presentation. He could now relax and listen to other presentations without worrying about his own commitments.
The last climate change session was devoted to GCMs, general circulation models describing the ocean/atmosphere system using the basic laws of physics and chemistry. The talks resurrected a problem worrying Tony for some time. The pH related effects he’d been modelling wouldn’t occur for seven or eight decades. What if another equally overwhelming impact of climate change affected the oceans on a shorter time scale?
Several talks described a warmer ocean choking off deep water formation and changing the dynamics of large ocean currents like the Gulf Stream. This would produce a more stagnant ocean with less latitudinal heat transfer. Could he integrate the effect of pH he’d been modelling with these impacts? And if he did, what impact would it have on the calculations he’d been making? He considered these questions as he enjoyed a post-conference beer with several colleagues.
An hour later, an unexpected text message from Beth imploring him to hurry home interrupted his early evening return to his hotel to collect his bag.
To return to the previous chapter, click here,
to go back to the beginning, click here.
To proceed to the next chapter, click here.