In the Wake of A Mother’s Tragedy, Another Mother Grieves

I do not normally blog directly from my heart, nor do I usually fill any of my social media profiles with my beliefs about politics, religion, or race … Honestly, I don’t feel I’m informed enough about any of those areas to put myself out there in a way that invites attack. However, the shooting yesterday of yet another innocent black man by an out of control police officer has hit home in a strange way.

Yesterday was my son’s 14th birthday, and as many young teens are wont to do, he is pushing every day for more freedom, fewer restrictions, more ability to stray from home without me. Like many parents, I worry incessantly over whether or not I should allow him to wander without me.

For his birthday, I posted a bunch of photos – wonderful, amusing snapshots of the creative, sometimes silly and often introspective child he was (amusing to me, anyway; for him some of them I’m certain are a horrible embarrassment). One of them, my favorite, I used as my “profile picture” on my personal Facebook page. It is the photo of the face of a handsome child intently studying a butterfly that is balanced on a leaf the child is pinching between his fingers. My son is a budding entomologist (though he prefers to be called an “insectologist”), with a special interest in ants.

My son also speaks, reads, and writes in Russian, and when he puts his mind to it can write a decent argumentative essay. He plays soccer, basketball, and this last season enjoyed being a member of the track team. He’s also a member of the science club, and part of his school’s self-described “nerd herd.” He’s an excellent artist with a mind bent towards architectural design (as I write this I can hear the Legos being shuffled around in his room). In addition, my son is polite (he opens doors for people, says “please” and “thank you,” and has passable table manners), is generally respectful of his elders, and is growing more and more thoughtful and helpful.

Yes, I am very, very proud of my son. He is growing to be a fine young man, and I have every reason to believe he will continue on this path, except for one thing …

My son is black.

Well, in reality, my son is mixed, because I am white and his father is black. But most of the time, I don’t think of him as anything except my son, Amadi. My son is a gorgeous caramel-colored boy with big, dark eyes, and soft, curly hair. This last year he’s grown taller than either of his parents by several inches, his voice has changed, and his little mustache is getting thicker. In other words, he’s just another kid, pretty typical for his age.

20100823 Amadi w: Butterfly

The photo I posted of him as my Facebook picture has been directly in front of me as I’ve read the accounts of Philando Castile’s death, watched the video of Ms. Reynold’s four-year-old child process the unimaginable, and read quotes from Philando’s mother. My heart hurts for all of the mothers out there, but especially for all of the mothers of black sons. Flashes of my beautiful little boy keep running through my mind, as I’m certain happens to every mother with every child.

Yes, I am afraid to let my son leave the house alone. I am afraid to let him ride the transit alone. I am afraid of the day he starts driving on his own. Because he is growing to be a black man in America, and if some police officer decides he looks suspicious, there is a very real chance that whether or not my son is innocent he will get hurt, or worse.

My son noted recently that one of our neighbors has a “Police Lives Matter” bumper sticker on his truck. While this is certainly a true statement, just as the statement “all lives matter” is also true, not only is it fantastically dismissive of the point of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, it also misses a very crucial fact. Police officers have chosen a career that by its very nature puts them in harms way, that sometimes involves being shot at. Black people, on the other hand, have not chosen to be black, any more than white people have chosen to be white.

I am white, and I understand very well that because of that I enjoy some privileges, that I will never fully understand what it is to be part of the non-white races in America. I also happen to have been born predominantly straight and with genitalia that match my sense of self, was raised in the Christian faith (though I don’t follow it anymore), don’t have any real handicaps that make me stand out, and am in all other ways a pretty run-of-the-mill individual, non-threatening to the “powers that be.” So, I will never be able to fully understand what it’s like to be persecuted because of the way you were born.

I have seen and felt first-hand, however, the ugliness of racism directed at me and my loved ones (I won’t go into the many accounts of racism I’ve witnessed and felt here; perhaps another time). As a mother, I sympathize strongly with all the mothers who have lost their children for whatever reason … police brutality, violence, drugs, mental illness … How ever the loss occurs, it is an emptiness that will never be filled.

post-script addition: The day after I posted this, I was horrified to learn of the Dallas, Texas shooting of police officers who were doing exactly what they should have been doing. My heart goes out to them and their families. I hope we can learn from this tragedy and move forward together.

Why Should We Care What Happens to a Small Mammal in the North Pacific?

By Neyssa Hays

As scientists learn more and more about certain species, it is becoming clearer that some are important for ecological structure and some species are good indicators of the health or illness of the area in which they live.  Sea otters are both and taking steps to protect them may be taking steps to protect us all.

Sea Otter with Urchin

Sea Otter with Urchin (France 2007)

Sea Otters as Keystone Species

The largest member of the family Mustelidae (minks, weasels, badgers, etc.), the charismatic sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is a well-documented keystone species because of their preferred food source: the spiny, purple sea urchin (Estes et al. 1982) A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment in comparison to its abundance.  Left unchecked, herbivorous urchins decimate kelp forests, leaving vast areas of ocean desert where once stood lush forests teeming with life (Estes et al. 1982 and 2010).  “Without any [other] natural predators,” wrote sea otter biologist James Estes, “urchins can become so numerous that they overgraze the lush kelp forests that otherwise abound along the West Coast. When this happens, the lost ecological benefits — both to society and the environment — are dramatic” (Estes 2012). Used by a plethora of ocean dwellers (including economically important species) for food, shelter, and rearing ground, the kelp forests are also critically central in maintaining coastline integrity and mitigating erosion (Estes et al. 2010).

Sea otter in the sun (France 2007)

Sea otter in the sun (France 2007)

 

Sea otters as Sentinel Species        

In addition to being a keystone species, sea otters have proven themselves to be a sentinel species, organisms whose welfare is indicative of the state of the environment in which they live.  As such, sea otter illnesses alert human welfare officials to potentially dangerous conditions along the coastline (Jessup et al. 2004).  If the waters in which they live are healthy, sea otters are as well, but with rising pollutants in coastal waters, protecting otter health has become increasingly difficult.  Fertilizer and pesticide runoff from lawns and farms; petroleum slicks from driveways, parking lots, gas stations, and tanker accidents; and diseases from domesticated animals are all taking their toll on the health of our oceans, and sea otter populations are showing the effects.  While birth rates have remained normal, mortality of adults is high and much of that has been from disease caused by contact with anthropogenic (of human origin) waste (Miller 2012), especially along coastlines with high human populations. This is particularly problematic for females who remain close to the waters in which they were born and are therefore exposed to the same contaminants through their entire lives (Jessup et al. 2004).

“All the research we have done to date suggests that there’s no one single mortality factor but that the deaths are caused by a suite of interacting stressors,” states Tim Tinker of the U.S. Geological Survey’s otter research program (Kettmann 2010).

Water pollution is hazardous to sea otters because of their life history patterns and habits, and each pollutant poses a distinct problem.  Because sea otters dive to hunt for and eat predominantly bottom-feeders (such as clams, crabs, sea urchin, and abalone) but spend most of their time floating on the surface, they come in direct contact with anything that is washed out to sea, including toxins and parasites from anthropogenic sources (Miller 2012). On the surface of the water where they spend most of their time, sea otters are exposed to oil slicks and toxic algal blooms, problems that have increased dramatically in recent years, while diving for their food requires swimming through other suspended pollutants.

Sea otters are born in and spend nearly their entire lives in the water, and though they are considered semi-aquatic by biologists because they are lacking features of fully aquatic mammals such as cetaceans (whales and dolphins) (Yeates 2007), their hind limbs are so well adapted for swimming, they are nearly useless on land (Kenyon 1969). Unlike other sea mammals, sea otters do not have insulative blubber but instead maintain thick pelage (fur) and a very high metabolism to ward off hypothermia (Yeates 2007).  If covered in petroleum, the otters’ thick fur loses its insulating properties and the animal soon freezes to death (Love 1992, Jessup et al. 2004, and Miller 2012).  Their high metabolism requires that sea otters consume prey at a rate of 25-35% of their own body weight each day; when the food the sea otters eat is contaminated, the contaminants become concentrated within the sea otters’ bodies, often to deadly levels (Jessup et al. 2004).  Because sea otters eat many of the same shellfish that humans do, their illnesses are potential indicators of problems in one of our own food sources.

In recent years, deceased and ill otters have shown high levels of the parasites Toxoplasma gondii, found in the feces of cats (Felis catus), and Sarcocystis neurona,  from opossum (Didelphis virginiana) feces (The Otter Project 2011, Righthand 2011, and Miller 2012).  Both cats and opossums were introduced to the Pacific coastal area by humans who brought them here as pets in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and have since become invasive (Maser 1998).  Scientists suspect that the fecal parasites, both related to malaria (Miller 2012), are washed out to the oceans through storm drains and, in the case of cats, through the sewage system when people dispose of cat litter in the toilet.

Sea Otters and Human History

Sustainably hunted for millennia by indigenous people of the Pacific Crest, when in 1741 Russia’s Vitus Bering and his crew first saw sea otters, the marine mammal’s populations were such that German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller stated, “They covered the shore in great droves” (Love 1992).  Like many other animals on the Endangered Species List, sea otters were then driven to near extinction in California as early as 1841 and elsewhere in their range by 1911 because of their economic importance to humans (Love 1992). Early explorers from Russia, Spain, England, France and the newly formed U.S. found great wealth to be made from the sales of the thickly furred hides that act as sea otters’ only insulation against the frigid waters of their natural habitat. Though sea otters are now legally protected from hunting and human encroachment in many areas, the protection of sea otters is still a contentious issue (Barlow 2012 and Estes 2012).

Map of the Pacific Crest Showing Sea Otter Historical and Current Ranges (USGS)

Map of the Pacific Crest Showing Sea Otter Historical and Current Ranges (USGS)

After they were listed as “threatened” in 1977, Southern sea otters (those living in the waters off the coast of California) were afforded protections.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife established sea otter reserves on San Nicolas Island, which they share with the U.S. Navy, and “no otter zones,” shellfish harvest areas from which “stray” otters can be captured and returned to their reserves (Kettmann 2010).  This theoretically keeps them from competing with human shellfish harvesters.  Recently the San Nicolas Island reserve area was challenged when Rep. Elton Gallegly introduced a bill to protect the Navy’s shooting rights on the island (Barlow 2012).  Neither environmental groups nor fishermen have ever been pleased with the “no otter zones;” environmental groups say the protections don’t go far enough while the fishermen rightly point out that the sea otters ignore the zoning laws (Kettmann 2010).  Similarly, in Puget Sound and the waters off Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington, where sea otter populations are generally healthy, state, province, and tribal fisheries managers struggle with balancing the welfare of the semi-aquatic mammals against that of the human fishing communities (Laidre and Jameson 2006).

Why We Should Care

Planetary ecology is like a lace cloth, delicate, intricate, and complex. Neither scientists nor politicians, nor the public, nor corporate leaders can completely predict what will happen if one or another species is protected or not.  But often times, as is the case with sea otters, protecting them starts a chain reaction of protection for other creatures, including ourselves.  As a sentinel species, sea otters’ well being is indicative of the health of the water in which they live, the same waters in which we play and fish. If not out of compassion for the wellbeing of other creatures, that healthier otters = healthier water = healthier humans should be enough of a reason to care about this small mammal of the North Pacific.

What We Can All Do to Help

Here’s the great news: there are many very easy things each of us can do to help improve the health of the oceans’ creatures, which in turn will help the health of every living thing on the planet, including our own.

1) Limit the amount of petroleum-based products you use by

a)         Walking or riding your bike to run errands; when commuting, take mass transit or ride your bike

b)         Use plant-based detergents, soaps, lotions and personal grooming products

c)         Reduce plastic in your life by using reusable grocery bags and glass food storage containers (such as peanut butter or jam jars)

d)        Purchase local, sustainably produced food

2) Keep chemicals out of storm drains by practicing organic gardening techniques and making sure your car or other gas-powered machines don’t leak oil or other fluids.

3) Bag your cat’s waste and used cat litter and send it out with your garbage; do not flush cat feces down the toilet.

4) Cut up the rings from beverage six-packs before throwing them away.

For more ideas on what you can do to help, visit The Otter Project at http://otterproject.wordpress.com.

References

Barlow, Z.  (2012, February 16).  Proposed bill addresses sea otter controversy.  Ventura county star.  Retrieved from http://m.vcstar.com

Estes, J. A., M. T. Tinker, J. L. Bodkin. 2010. Using Ecological Function to Develop Recovery Criteria for Depleted Species: Sea Otters and Kelp Forests in the Aleutian Archipelago.  Conservation Biology 24:852-861.

Estes, J. A., R. J. Jameson, E. B. Rhode. 1982. Activity and Prey Election in the Sea Otter: Influence of Population Status on Community Structure.  The American Naturalist 120: 242-258.

Estes, J.A. (2012, February 21). On Sea Otters, we need to see the big picture.  LA Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com.

Jessup, D., M. Miller, J. Ames, M. Harris, C.. Kreuder, P. Conrad, J. Mazetz. 2004. Southern sea otter as a sentinel of marine ecosystem health.  EcoHealth 1:239-2004.

Kenyon, K. W. 1969.  The sea otter in the eastern Pacific Ocean.  Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. Washington, D.C.

Kettmann, M. (2010, September 25).  The mystery of the vanishing California sea otters. Time. Retrieved from http://www.time.com.

Laidre, K. L. and Jameson, R. J. 2006. Foraging patterns and prey selection in an increasing and expanding sea otter population.  Journal of Mammalogy 87:799-807.

Love, J. A.  1992.  Sea otters. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishers.

Maser, C. 1998.  Mammals of the Pacific Northwest: from the coast to the high Cascades.  Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press.

Miller, M. 2012. Sick Sea Otters and Potential Health Risks for Humans at the Land-Sea Interface.  Abstract from presentation at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Feb. 18, 2012 in Vancouver, B.C.

Righthand, J. (2011, September). Otters: The Picky Eaters of the Pacific. Smithsonian magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com.

The Otter Project 2010. “Sea otters where are you?” Sea Otter Scoop: The Official Blog of the Otter Project.  Accessed 2/18/2012 at: http://otterproject.wordpress.com

Yeates, L. C., T. M. Williams, T. L. Fink. 2007. Diving and foraging energetics of the smallest marine mammal, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Journal of Experimental Biology 210:1960-1970.

Image References

Armstrong, M. (2004, December 30). High tide strands sick sea otter.  Homer News.  Retrieved from: http://homernews.com

France, L. 2007.  Sea otters. Retrieved from: http://courses.washington.edu/mareco07/students/lindsay/Sea%20Otters.html

USGS, undated.  Sea otter range map.  Retrieved 3/8/2012 from: http://www.werc.usgs.gov/ProjectSubWebPage.aspx?SubWebPageID=1&ProjectID=91

Demystifying Ocean Acidification: a Human Interest Story

By Neyssa Hays

When fifteen-year-old Christopher Sabine’s parents sold the family home in Mobile, Alabama, bought a sailboat, and set out for a year of sailing the oceans, they were setting their young son on his life’s path (Sabine 2012).  On the beautiful waters of the Bahamas, he met a girl and developed enough of a crush to determine the only university to which he would apply: Texas A & M.  The fates were smiling on him and, fortunately, he was accepted.  He found the girl again, too, but on their first date, they discovered they weren’t compatible (he did, however, eventually find his future wife there).  More importantly, during the year of sailing with his parents, he fell in love with the ocean, determined then that he would be an oceanographer, and hasn’t wavered since.

Dr. Christopher Sabine at work on a NOAA science vessel (NOAA 2010)

Dr. Christopher Sabine at work on a NOAA science vessel (NOAA 2010)

The only change of plan was the direction of his oceanography career; originally, he planned to study physical oceanography but about the same time he was realizing physics involves more math than he was comfortable with, he won an award for his academic work in chemical oceanography.  Further solidifying this choice was a summer he spent in a course at the Bermuda Biological Station with geochemist Dr. Fred Mackenzie from the University of Hawaii (UH).  Again applying for only one graduate school, Sabine was accepted to UH and Dr. Mackenzie became his advisor.  Sabine said he “had a vision in mind” (Sabine 2012): to achieve a PhD in oceanography by the time he was 25.  Ultimately, he missed his deadline, but only by a few months.

A slender man with a welcoming smile, warm demeanor, and cheery chuckle, as an oceanographer for NOAA (and as of last November, the most recent director of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle, Washington) Dr. Christopher Sabine studies some of the most depressing statistics of our times: CO2 emissions and their effects on our oceans.  Surprisingly, he is also one of the most jovial people I’ve ever met.

Sabine (background) and longtime research partner, Richard Feely (Levin 2007)

Sabine (background) and longtime research partner, Richard Feely (Levin 2007)

Apparently he’s too cheerful for some people.  According to Sabine, a few years ago his long-time research partner, Dr. Richard Feely (also of NOAA’s PMEL in Seattle), and he were filmed for a documentary called “A Sea Change” (Huseby 2009).  When the film was screened for a test audience the feedback was that, “I smile too much,” said Sabine.  The audience didn’t approve of someone smiling as he reported statistics of doom and gloom.  But, Sabine says it’s just in his personality to be an optimist.

“I’m amazed by human ingenuity and our ability to respond to what seem to be hopeless causes, and I’m convinced that we’ll figure a way out of this. And I hope that in some way, I’ll be a part of it,” he told me (Sabine 2012).

OCEAN ACIDIFICATION

The “this” he’s speaking of is the ever-rising acidity levels of our ocean waters, ocean acidification, to use a term coined by the Royal Society shortly after Sabine and Feely published two breakthrough papers about it in the July, 2004 issue of Science (Sabine 2012). Working in a very similar field from different angles, Sabine and Feely complement each other in figuring out what’s going on with the oceans.  Said Sabine, “I focused on how it was happening while Dick focused on the effects of it on marine organisms” (Sabine 2012).

The cover of Science, July, 2004 showing the pteropod Clio pyramidata (Gilmer and Harbison 2004)

The cover of Science, July, 2004 showing the pteropod Clio pyramidata (Gilmer and Harbison 2004)

The titles of their articles clearly illustrate this division; Sabine’s article is entitled “The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2” where Feely’s is “Impact of Anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 System in the Oceans.”    Sabine analyzed results of tests showing rising acidity levels in the oceans while Feely theorized that with the rising acidity levels, animals such as the thinly shelled pteropods Clio pyramidata (shown left) and Limacina Helicina (shown below), as well as corals, clams, mussels and other creatures that make their shells from calcium carbonate will find it more difficult to survive (Feely et al. 2004).

The    Pteropod Limacina Helicina (NOAA 2010)

The Pteropod Limacina Helicina
(NOAA 2010)

Pteropods are commonly called sea butterflies, and at roughly the size of a small pea are some of the most important food resources for a variety of ocean dwellers including the economically important salmon and several species of whale (NOAA 2010).

Nature generally insists on balance.  Land, air, and water have always exchanged gases in a carefully balanced cycle regulated by seasonal changes, geomorphic pressures, and biological systems that scientists are still working to fully understand (Sabine and Feely 2007).  As a natural part of that cycle, carbon dioxide is taken up and released by a host of sources, including animals, living and decaying plants, the oceans, and even the breakdown of certain rocks.  Whether one is taking it up or releasing it depends in part on where the concentrations are.  If the concentrations are higher in one part of the triad, pressure is placed on the other two to take up the excess and bring everything back in balance.  As humans have dramatically increased the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, the pressure on the oceans and land to take up that CO2 has increased, and through a process similar to osmosis combined with its churning and seasonal mixing, the oceans have responded.  Initially, scientists heralded this response as our saving grace, but as atmospheric CO2 continued to rise, scientists like Sabine, Feely, and others around the world began to wonder how it was affecting the oceans themselves.

According to Sabine, atmospheric levels of CO2 are over thirty percent higher than they were 200 years ago, and half of that has appeared in the last 30 years (Sabine, 2011).   However, it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere; the oceans currently take up between one-third and one-fourth of the anthropogenic (human created) CO2 in a reversal of their pre-industrial roles.  Before the industrial revolution, the oceans were an atmospheric source of CO2 as biophysical processes such as decay of organic materials released the gas into the water, which then released it in the atmosphere (Sabine and Feely 2007).  But, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased exponentially, the exchange has reversed. And as they buffer us from some of the effects of our modern lifestyles, they are becoming more and more acidified.

(NOAA 2010)

(NOAA 2010)

The oceans are a complex mixture of water and dissolved ions, each playing a unique and important role.  Some of those ions include calcium (Ca) and carbonate (CO3), the basic building blocks used by sea creatures such as clams, corals, snails, and pteropods to form calcium carbonate into unique, elaborate, and beautiful armored homes.  According to Sabine, “In shallow waters you typically get the reaction CO2 + H2O + CO3 = 2 HCO3” (bicarbonate ions), a weak acid (Sabine email 2012).  “The more CO2 you add, the more you use up CO3 so the more difficult it is for organisms to find a dissolved CO3 and a Ca to form their shell. Eventually, if you continue to add CO2, you will begin to dissolve the shells or at least make the depth that shells naturally dissolve shallower.” While currently there is enough CO3 in the shallow waters to keep this from happening, tests have shown (see image below) that at current rates of acidification some ocean waters will grow corrosive enough by the end of this century to do just that (NOAA 2010).

Pteropod shell left in sea water of pH and carbon balances equal to projections for the year 2100 (NOAA 2010).

Pteropod shell left in sea water of pH and carbon balances equal to projections for the year 2100 (NOAA 2010).

Scientists estimate that the oceans have the capacity to take up 70 to 85 percent of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, but because of the slow process of mixing it could take thousands of years to do so (Sabine and Feely 2007).   Thus far, the vast majority of that carbon dioxide is staying in fairly shallow waters (less than a quarter mile in depth); most deep ocean waters have not experienced elevated levels of CO2.  Absorbing carbon at a rate of roughly two and a half petagrams per year, the oceans are not able to remove the carbon as quickly as it is accumulating in the atmosphere (Sabine et al. 2004).

SABINE’S COAL CAR ANALOGY 

One petagram is one billion metric tons.  That’s a ridiculously large number to try to grasp, so Sabine has done some searching to find the right analogy to draw a picture.

“At first,” he said, “I tried a VW bug analogy …” because a VW bug weighs about one metric ton.  So, we’re putting three billion VW bugs in the ocean per year?  But that wasn’t working for people either; they couldn’t equate the form of a car with carbon.  Then one day, Sabine was talking about it with a NOAA project manager who said, “Coal is mostly carbon, isn’t it?  How many coal cars would it fill?”  So Sabine crunched the numbers and had his analogy.

Coal train in Wyoming. (Goebel 2006)

Coal train in Wyoming. (Goebel 2006)

Coupler to coupler, a U.S. hopper car is sixty feet long and carries 100 U.S. tons of coal; a train carrying one petagram of coal would need to be about 156,500 miles long.  At the equator, the earth is approximately 24,902 miles around.  That equates to a train full of coal wrapping around the equator over six times for one petagram of carbon, and we’re pumping about  nine petagrams of carbon a year into our atmosphere.  That’s the equivalent of 54 trainloads of coal around the earth every year, a third of which is going into the ocean.

COLLECTING THE DATA

Of course, ocean acidification is not something that humans can detect with a trip to the beach.  It’s taken teams of researchers years to develop the technology necessary to let them analyze the subtle changes in the oceans, and countless hours of running what Sabine described as a grid pattern of ship cruises wherein they stop every 30 miles to take water samples from the surface to the bottom.  As they travel, the scientists analyze the samples they’ve taken.

In his new position as director of NOAA’s PMEL in Seattle, Sabine said he won’t get as much time on the water, so he’s “keeping some of the [other] fun parts” to himself, his favorite being technology development. The technology he’s very excited about is something called a Liquid Robotics “Wave Glider,” an ocean going vessel fitted with CO2 sensors he developed with Chris Meinig, PMEL’s lead engineer  (Ahearn, 2011).

Wave Glider (Feely 2011)

Wave Glider (Feely 2011)

Once it’s deployed from a small fishing boat anywhere in the world, Sabine and his team control the wave-propelled craft via satellite communication from their laboratory in Seattle.  “If I see an interesting feature I can say, ‘Turn around, go back and look at that again.’ Or if I want to go to a particular spot I just point it in that direction and off it goes,” Sabine said.

A bit smaller than seven feet long, the glider’s dimensions were set by the need to ship it anywhere in the world as most commercial carriers can only accept shipments no larger than seven feet (Sabine 2012). The rest of the design,including the PMEL-designed CO2 sensors, Liquid Robotics-designed wave-riding fins, and solar-energy panels were from imagination and engineering know-how.

SO THERE I WAS

Sabine’s cruises have not always gone as planned.  In 2008 Sabine was the chief scientist on a 274-foot NOAA “top of the world class ocean vessel” near South Georgia Island (east of Patagonia in the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean).  As the chief scientist, he was responsible for all of the other scientists and equipment on board.  Their mission for that cruise: analyze how “CO2 moves between air and water during high wind and rough sea conditions” (Sabine 2012). In other words, their plan was to face a major storm head-on and measure the chemical changes it caused in the water as it was raging.  Laboratory studies had shown that gas exchange between air and water is very high during high-wind conditions but this had never been tested in the “natural environment.”

NOAA Research Ship Oscar Dyson (NOAA)

NOAA Research Ship Oscar Dyson (NOAA)

“We could see [the storm] coming on the weather radar,” Sabine told me.  “Yes, alright!  Perfect conditions!” they thought. But as the storm moved closer and the waves rose higher, the ship’s engines started having problems.  With “an array of measuring equipment” trailing in the water behind them and an Antarctic sea storm nearly on top of them, the ship “suddenly went dead in the water.”  They couldn’t go anywhere, and they certainly couldn’t take the measurements they’d gone out to retrieve.  Fortunately, the ship’s crewmembers were able to get enough power going to “run away” from the storm and hide behind the island until it had passed and they were able to go back and collect some data in somewhat calmer conditions.

 

Sabine’s “Employee of the Month” Photo (NOAA 2007)

Sabine’s “Employee of the Month” Photo (NOAA 2007)

THE ETERNAL OPTIMIST

Though Sabine has won many awards for his work, including NOAA’s Outstanding Scientific Paper Award multiple times and Seattle’s Federal Executive Board’s Public Service Award (Goldman 2011), he is most proud of the recognition he’s received as part of a team.  In 2006 he and his team were awarded the Department of Commerce Gold Medal for their work on ocean acidification, and when in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, they recognized Sabine as a major contributor.  He said there are no Nobel prizes in his future, but as director he will take pride in watching other members of his team win awards.

Sabine said he hopes his work will make a difference.  His primary focus is on “educating people and trying to impress upon them the importance of changes in our global oceans, knowing that if we really set our mind to it we can get ourselves out of this downward spiral that we’re in when it comes to the oceans, CO2 emissions, and climate change.”

In a time when nearly every environmental prediction we hear is that we’ve doomed ourselves to an inevitable, accelerated demise, forecasts like Sabine’s give hope that if we choose to make the simple, necessary changes, we can regain control of our train, our environmental destiny, and avoid a disastrous derailment.


References

Ahearn, Ashley. 2011. The Five Coolest Things About Ocean-Exploring Robots.  Earthfix.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at: http://earthfix.opb.org/water/article/wavegliders-hold-the-key-to-accessing-ocean-secret/

Feely, R.A. et al. 2004. Impact of Anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 System in the Oceans. Science 305: 362. Accessed 1/31/2012 at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3837506

Goldman, J. 2011. Oceanographer named to head NOAA’s Seattle research laboratory. Noaa News. http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2011/20111018_pmel.html

Huseby, S. and Ettinger, B. 2009. A Sea Change.  Niijii Films.  Available at: http://www.aseachange.net/

NOAA. 2010.  What is Ocean Acidification? PMEL Carbon Program.  Accessed 2/4/2012 at: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F

Sabine, C.L., et al. 2004. The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2. Science 305:367-371.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3837507

Sabine, C.L. 2011.  Ocean Uptake of Atmospheric CO2 and its Impact on Marine Ecosystems. Presentation Introduction. Aquatic Sciences Meeting, San Juan, Puerto Rico. http://www.aslo.org/sanjuan2011/plenary.html

Sabine, C.L. 2012.  Interview, recorded with permission.

Sabine, C.L. 2012.  Email response to my chemistry questions.  Available upon request.

Sabine, C.L. and Feely, R.A. 2007. The Oceanic Sink for Carbon Dioxide. Pp 31-50 in Greenhouse Gas Sinks (eds D.S. Reay, N. Hewitt, J. Grace and K.A. Smith) CAB International.

Photo references

Feely.  2011. feelygliderphoto.  NOAA. Accessed 2/1/2012 at: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/NPR+story+on+wave+gliders

Gilmer, R.W. and Harbison, G.R. 2004. The pteropod Clio pyramidata.  Science 305:Cover.  Accessed 2/1/2012 at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/305/5682.cover-expansion

Goebel, Greg. 2006.  coal car, eastern Wyoming.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at: http://www.vectorsite.net/gfxpxv_09.html

Levin, M. 2007. Sabine and Feely photo. Ocean Blues. Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine.  Accessed 2/4/2012 at: http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june07/content/view/12/1/1/2/

NOAA. Research ship Oscar Dyson. Accessed 2/10/2012 at: http://www.moc.noaa.gov/od/

NOAA. 2007.  Sabine’s “Employee of the Month” Photo. Accessed 2/10/2012 at: http://www.accessnoaa.noaa.gov/index102607.html

NOAA. 2010.  Sabine at sea. A Sea of Change: Ocean Acidification Threatening Coastal Waters. Accessed 2/4/2012 at: http://www.noaa.gov/features/02_monitoring/index.html

NOAA. 2010.  What is Ocean Acidification? PMEL Carbon Program.  Accessed 2/4/2012 at: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F

NOAA. 2011.  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Accessed 1/31/2012 at: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2011/20111018_pmel.html