Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Heroes on the High Seas

Dinner: Surf and Turf

At dinner tonight, (yes, we actually had lobster and steak!) there was a lot of talk about Puff Daddy and at what point did Puff Daddy (who’s real name is Sean Combs) become P. Diddy. There seems to be some kind of generational divide here that I’m not aware of. Still, everyone agreed that Liv Tyler is way too skinny and that Axl Rose still “rocks out.” Oh, and later, as the evening wore on and we were all up waiting for the 9:45 p.m. core, the discussion on the origin of the term “man basket” came up and well, things got a little bit randy.

Perhaps it’s because it’s our 6th day at sea. (And, for some of the scientists and crew who were on the Azores trip just before this expedition, it’s been over a month!), so everyone is feeling a little wacky.

So forgive me, if this this next though sounds a little wacky, but I suddenly realized that the work we’re doing here reminds me a lot of that cartoon show from the early 1990’s, Captain Planet. It was created by Ted Turner and considered “edutainment” because it taught kids about the importance of protecting our environment.

Oh, and there were plenty of villains with names like Hoggish Greedly, Sly Sludge, Duke Nukem and Veninous Skumm. Each show featured some kind of environmental disaster caused by one of these dastardly villians.

The team of five Planeteers tried to solve the problem, but generally, Captain Planeteer came to the rescue. Each show would end with Captain Planet looking straight at the television audience and saying:

“The power is yours!”

So, I was thinking about Captain Planet today and how what we need here is a real life is a modern Captain Planet!

I mean, all this damage we’re doing the environment and especially to the ocean is really awful. And what’s worse is how there are these people out there who don’t believe that climate change is real. I can’t help but think it’s like those days when people would go around saying, oh, smoking isn’t bad for your health! That cancer connection—oh, that’s just some crazy hoax!

And then along came C. Everett Koop, the Surgeon General and in 1982 he let the

world know in no uncertain terms that yes, smoking is dangerous for your health!

And suddenly, the world changed. The tipping point!

Call me naive, but I think we could do that for our planet.

We could get everyone on board to help protect our oceans if only we had a C. Everett Koop kind of guy. Or a Captain Planet!

Our Very Own Captain Planet: Dr. Ian Nicholas McCave

Well, I have one for you. Yes, right here on board the Knorr, we have our very own hero. An elder statesman of science. Handsome. Calm. Steady. Brilliant. Accomplished. Oh, and he’s got a sexy British accent!!!

Think Sean Connery.

I talked to Dr. McCave earlier today.

He told me how he got into being the profession of saving our oceans from the evil naysayers.

He would have been born on Guernsey Island (the island made famous by the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”) but in 1940 during World War II when his mother was pregnant with him, the family was evacuated and moved to a small town in Scotland. He grew up playing around the beach, swimming and fishing. By the age of ten, he was actually spear fishing and going out in small boats to catch lobsters and crabs. He remembers catching Conger Eels at low tide and then cutting them up to use for bait to catch larger fish. And while he doesn’t do much fishing these days in Cambridge where he teaches at the University of Cambridge--he loves to cook. He often grills halibut, and whole turbots on the barbeque. He’ll grill or flash fry, create a b├ęchamel sauce, add some capers. Delicious!

All this reminds me very much of my husband, Bill (a scientist at WHOI). Bill also grew up by the beach, he loves to fish and he’s a fantastic cook. I find that a lot of climate change scientists, especially the ones that study the ocean are avid fishermen and great cooks. So perhaps it’s their stomach speaking when they talk about the dangers of destroying our waters and the knowledge that if we keep going in this direction, they’ll be no more fish to fry!

Honestly, this is not a trivial matter. Every living being needs to eat. And the food chain begins on the microscopic level and goes right up to us humans. So, the truth is, if we keep ignoring what is happening in our oceans, there really will be no more fish to put on the barbie!

It runs in the family.

A love of the ocean is part of Dr. McCave’s DNA. His great grandfather was a merchant sea captain in the 1800’s. He remembers when he was growing up and looking at his great grandfather’s photograph on the living room mantelpiece, and in fact, he still keeps this photograph in his home today in Cambridge. So, perhaps this great grandfather is a kind of a muse for Dr. McCave’s work.

Dr. McCave took this early interest in fishing and turned it into a very successful career as well as a life long passion in science. He studied geology as an undergraduate at Oxford and then went on to get his Ph.D. at Brown University in sedimentary geology. In fact, that’s where he met Chief Scientist on the Knorr, Dr. Lloyd Keigwin.

Today, Nick—this is what we call Dr. McCave on board the Knorr—is a well-known sedimentologist. He’s an expert in the dynamics of sediment transport by deep sea currents and the study of how sediment is picked up, transported and then deposited by the circulation of the ocean.

The ocean is heating up.

We got to talking about climate change over coffee this morning and he told me that yes, the temperature of the ocean is changing and you can see that from what’s going on with the foraminifera. Those are the pretty, little jewel-like creatures I showed you yesterday. If you measure deep into the ocean you might say oh, there are only very small changes in temperature, say less than a tenth of a degree--but if you add all those changes up all over the world, you will find that the amount of heat in the ocean has changed considerably. Dramatically. And it’s happening all over the world.

This pattern of ocean warming may change circulation patterns before long and this is why Nick and Lloyd and Cindy and all the good scientists of WHOI are hard at work, uncovering the mystery from many different angles. This is why they “read” mud—or sediments. These sediments are kind of like the tea leaves that a gypsy reads to determine the long-ago past, the near past and the future. (Only much more scientific, but go with me here.) The “tea leaves” (or sediments) tell the story of the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period, which preceded it, as well as the thousands of years before these events and up to the present time.

The Little Ice Age

Did you know that from around 1650-1700 we had something called The Little Ice Age? Everything became considerably colder, and in fact the Thames froze over.

Today, the Thames never freezes over. In fact, it hasn’t frozen over since the 1800’s. But you can see these wonderful old paintings of people having parties on the ice.

So, what do the tea leaves say?

Here’s the scary part--we’re now going into an era that’s actually hotter than the Medieval Warm Period.

What does all this have to do with sediment? Mud? Well, when Nick or Lloyd or Cindy or any of the other scientists studying foraminifera, go back to the lab and look at their samples through a microscope, they find that the isotope composition of the shell of the foram (short for foraminifera) has become lighter. Yes, the little shells on the beautiful little sea creatures are getting lighter and thinner. And why is this? It’s because the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prevents the heat from escaping and when it dissolves in the water, it creates carbonic acid. And you know what acid does to things? It dissolves them!

After all, the shells from all these little creatures are made from carbon calcium. And if we keep going in this direction, the little clams and oysters and mussels and periwinkles won’t be able to form shells.

Think of it. For an oyster or a clam, her shell is her clothing, her transportation and even her house, all rolled into one.

I actually already know a little about this because the wonderful, funny and sweet WHOI scientist (and friend), Dr. Anne Cohen, told me about it.

This is a photo I took of Anne at the last year's AGU. Just dig those boots. I mean, with boots like that, you know she too must be a superhero!

See you tomorrow!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jamie-all this is so interesting and, as you always make it, fun. I recall my parents speaking of the Connecticut River freezing and folks skating on it. I don't remember the years this happened so you see I'd never make it as a researcher.
    ~waiting for your next blog-be it science, boots, interviews, whatever, I'm a follower. Kathy