“A Sea Change” reviewed; or, HALP! Iz I stuck in the ivory science tower?

May 12, 2009

After seeing “A Sea Change,” a documentary about ocean acidification, I felt really, really guilty. Not because of my carbon footprint, but because I did not like this earnest, passionate movie.

“A Sea Change,” which made its southern California debut at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography last week, is essentially one big appeal to emotion. Everyman Sven Huseby embarks on a quest to save the oceans for his overly adorable grandson, seeking answers in scientific meetings, subarctic labs, and even artist Maya Lin’s studio. The narrative is frequently interspersed with Mr. Huseby writing heartfelt letters to and frolicking with his grandson, as well as multiple scenes on his computer googling away for “pteropods” and “ocean acidification.” Since the filmmakers said that they were determined to avoid graphs, information is conveyed in voiceovers while the audience listens to Phillip Glass music (Battlestar Galactica fans will feel like they’re in the Opera House) and gazes at pretty ocean scenes.

I was bothered by the lack of informative content. I understand that oceanic carbon chemistry and acidification is extremely difficult to explain and understand, but there is almost no mention of what ocean acidification actually is. There was an interesting demonstration of the effects of carbonated soda water on human teeth (they dissolve!), but since soda water is far more acidic than even the worst seawater, will people find this convincing? At another point Mr. Huseby mentions “a world without fish” but we have no idea how this is linked to ocean acidification, except for that it has to do with CO2 somehow.

I did like that the last third of the movie focused on climate change solutions. Mr. Huseby visits Google’s solar panels, a wind farm, and a hotel that runs on ocean geothermic energy. He makes the excellent point that clean energy technology exists! It exists right now! We should use it! I was also shocked and intrigued at a statistic casually bandied about by climate scientist Ken Caldeira. Caldeira said that fixing the climate change problem would cost less than 2% annual GDP. I would love to know more about that figure. Whose GDP? And what does 2% actually mean in terms of predicted economic impact?

As a nascent scientist who took an entire seminar on the scientific ocean acidification literature,  I’m not the target audience for “A Sea Change.” But I’m not sure who their audience might be. In my opinion, the movie is not informative enough to show in science classes, and I don’t know if young people will emotionally connect with a grandfather’s quest. (It doesn’t help that nearly every single person in the movie is white.)  I could see the movie resonating with older, non-scientific audiences, but as a young science person it’s hard for me to tell.

I would love to hear from others who have seen “A Sea Change.” Am I a sterotypical scientist addicted to facts and graphs? A grinch who hates sea lions and blond moppets? Or do non-scientists also want more content from their science documentaries?

Earth Hour tonight, 8:30 PM your time

March 28, 2009

Tonight is Earth Hour. Last year, more than 50 million people in 400 cities turned out their lights for one hour to show political leaders that they wanted real action on climate change. This year, let’s make it even bigger.

All you have to do is turn off your lights at 8:30 PM your local time and leave them off for 60 minutes. I’ll even be turning off my beloved laptop for some grantwriting with…paper and pencil!!!

I’m perfectly aware that Earth Hour is just a minuscule drop in the giant ocean of worldwide energy use. But even for something as trivial as turning out the lights, seeing the entire world taking collective positive action warms the cockles of my cold dark heart.

Here’s the official Earth hour video if you want something all inspirational. But if I’m going to sit alone in the dark contemplating climate change, I’m going to do it to the dark beats of VNV Nation:

Will dumping cornstalks into the ocean sequester carbon?

February 11, 2009

There a new ocean carbon sequestration scheme in town – dumping crop waste. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology last month proposes baling up corn husks and wheat stalks, weighting them with rocks, and tossing them into the deep sea. (Here’s the NYT blurb.)


The authors claim that marine creatures will be unable to digest chewy terrestrial plants chock-full of lignin and cellulose, so the sea will keep that carbon down for thousands of years. If this worked, they calculate it would reduce carbon accumulation in the atmosphere by 15%.

Unfortunately, their entire premise might be wrong. The deep sea is not a lifeless cold dark empty place – it is filled with animals that are evolved to take advantage of whatever food drifts down from above, terrestrial or not. For example, wood that falls into the deep sea gets eaten. There’s even a deep-sea bivalve that specializes in drilling into wood.

Since wood is a lot harder on the digestion than grass stems, I doubt that all that crop waste would just sit there bereft and alone for thousands of years. It’s going to get munched upon and decomposed, and the carbon will go back into global circulation. I wish that controlling climate change were as simple as dumping some stuff nobody wants anyway into the ocean, but I just don’t think it’s going to be that easy.

Stuart E. Strand, Gregory Benford (2009). Ocean Sequestration of Crop Residue Carbon: Recycling Fossil Fuel Carbon Back to Deep Sediments. Environmental Science & Technology, 43 (4), 1000-1007.

The risks & benefits of geoengineering

January 9, 2009

ResearchBlogging.orgGeoengineering – the deliberate manipulation of the earth’s atmosphere in order to mitigate global warming – seems to be gaining more credibility worldwide. Just today, Wired reports that an iron fertilization experiment is being conducted in the Southern Ocean by Indian and German scientists.

Though iron fertilization is the best-known geoengineering proposal (thanks to Planktos’ shenanigans), there are several other serious methods under discussion. In a commentary published in Nature Geoscience in November, Philip Boyd summarized current geoengineering proposals and ranked them based on effectiveness, cost, risk, and time.

Here are the proposals Boyd ranked:

  • Iron fertilization. Deliberately stimulating plant growth in the ocean with the aim that the excess material will be permanently sequestered in the deep sea. This would remove carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Stratospheric aerosols. Injecting sulfer particles into the upper atmosphere to mimic a volcanic explosion and physically deflect sunlight. This would not remove carbon from the atmosphere, but would lower the overall amount of  heat reaching Earth.
  • Cloud whitening. Spraying seawater droplets into marine clouds in order to increase their reflectance of sunlight. Like the stratospheric aerosols, this would not remove carbon from the atmosphere, but would lower the overall amount of  heat reaching Earth.
  • Atmospheric carbon capture. Removing carbon from the atmosphere with a chemical absorbent (“scrubbers”) and then sequestering it.
  • Geochemical carbon capture. Removing carbon from the atmosphere by using brine pools to transform it to a dissolved or solid state.

Boyd provides an handy, color-coded guide to the risks and benefits of each type of geoengineering. The more colored blocks a scheme has, the “better” it is.

Ranking geoengineering schemesBased on Boyd’s work, the highest-ranked proposal is cloud whitening. It has a reasonably solid rationale based on observations of ship tracks, it is reasonably affordable & safe, it would rapidly lower the Earth’s temperature if it worked (“mitigation rate”), and can be quickly stopped if there are unintended side effects (“emergency stop”).

The lowest-ranked proposal is (SHOCK!) iron fertilization. Though it has a relatively solid rationale based on experimental data, it has many unpredictable side effects and cannot easily be stopped in an emergency. Oh, and it probably won’t actually work.

Though Boyd’s ranking is certainly oversimplified – for example, cloud whitening, even if it worked, would do nothing to halt ocean acidification – that’s intentional. Boyd intends his system to be used as a logical starting point to figure out which geoengineering schemes deserve more research, and which should be trashed. He writes:

A transparent assessment should strive to increase public confidence in any selected tools, a prerequisite for tackling the difficult questions and complex issues raised by geopolitical, social and economic risks. Such an assessment of all of the
well-established proposals is urgently needed but so far entirely lacking.

Right now, I don’t feel confident in any of these proposals. I am dubious that we understand the ocean and atmosphere well enough to tinker with them. But since the nasty consequences of climate change are already coming fast and furious, I’m willing to listen to sober assessments of geoengineering risks and rewards. Just hold the pseudo-scientific hubris.

Thanks to Hao for the Wired article and Geoff for the geoengineering paper!

Philip W. Boyd (2008). Ranking geo-engineering schemes Nature Geoscience, 1 (11), 722-724 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo348

A quick & dirty guide to ocean acidification

January 4, 2009

Are you confused about this whole ocean acidification thing? As a followup to my guide to nearshore drilling, I’ve written a guide to ocean acidification. It’s up as a guest post over at The Reef Tank, an online community of aquarium hobbyists. Here’s the beginning:

Ocean acidification will make off with your children! It will come after you in the night! It’s not safe until its head is mounted on my wall! KILL THE BEAST!

Ooops. Wrong movie. But ocean acidification has received a lot of high-profile attention lately, most notably with an editorial in the New York Times. The claims are flying every which way – ocean acidification will kill all the coral reefs, ocean acidification will make the oceans a barren wasteland of jellyfish, ocean acidification will even level the blood-thirsty Humboldt squid.

So here’s your handy guide to ocean acidification, and how it might affect coral reefs in particular.

Click here for the rest.

Thanks to Ava at the Reef Tank for the opportunity!

Link between ocean acidification and declining mussels?

November 25, 2008

Is the ocean already acidic enough to drive out mussels? NPR reported this morning on a new study that attributed falling mussel populations on Tatoosh Island, WA (a famous intertidal ecology site that’s been monitored since the 1960s) to decreasing pH.

Ocean chemistry measured from Tatoosh Island found that the ocean there is becoming acidic 10 times faster than expected, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And the study’s author J. Timothy Wootton says the island’s ecosystem is changing rapidly as a result.

During an eight-year period, he says, 10 to 20 percent of the mussels on the island have been replaced by acid-tolerant algae.

It’s based on this PNAS article, which was published online yesterday. The authors use a bunch of fancy multispecies Markov chain models to prove the correlation between declining mussel cover and acidification, but unfortunately I have neither the knowledge (working on it!) or the time today to really delve into it. Anyone out there have an opinion? Paging JEByrnes

Ocean acidification movie in early 2009

September 25, 2008

Ocean acidification is a terrifying but little-known effect of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, kind of like the Shelob to climate change’s Nazgul. Essentially, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves into seawater and raises lowers the pH, making the water more acidic. This makes it hard for critters with a calcium carbonate shell or skeleton to live and grow. Who has a calcium carbonate shell? Corals, mussels, oysters, clams, bryozoans, some worms, snails, red algae, some kinds of plankton…almost everything in the ocean either has a calcium carbonate part or lives on or eats something that does. If the ocean gets too acid, entire ecosystems could crash and burn.

That’s why Sven Huseby and the crew behind a new documentary are working to raise awareness of this nasty, nasty problem.

A Sea Change will focus public attention on this urgent but little-known crisis. It follows retired educator and concerned grandfather Sven Huseby back to stunning ancestral sites (Norway, Alaska the Pacific Northwest) where he finds cutting-edge ocean research underway. His journey of self-discovery brings adventure, surprise and revelation to the hard science of acidification.

Check out the preview here. A Sea Change is planning release in early 2009.

(Thanks to A Sea Change for linking to us! That’s how I found out about them.)

Don’t Bushes need the sun to grow? Why does Bush hate the sun?

June 27, 2008

Despite the enormous flow of money into new solar projects (the free market, trying to work), this has been a rotten 12 months for solar energy. Last year California Sen. Dianne Feinstein led the effort to increase fuel efficiency standards to 35 mpg by 2020, and in the process she dropped provisions that would have extended  tax breaks for solar and wind power development. Still, as the manager of millions of acres of desert land, companies flooded the BLM with applications to construct big solar power projects that could potentially provide enormous quantities of clean electricity for electricity-sucking SoCal, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the rest of the region.

But today we learn that the Bush administration has placed a moratorium on all new large solar projects on Bureau of Land Management property, which, of course, means millions of acres of desert in the southwest which happen to, you know, get a lot of sunlight. They argue that they need to do an environmental assessment of the impact of large solar projects, which could take up to two years. I can’t be alone when I lean my head out the window and belt out a hearty, “AAARGH!”

Read the rest of this entry »

The Managed World: Charismatic vs. endangered

June 2, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

The first Managed World was about a top land predator: wolves in Yellowstone, and whether we really want wild wolves after all. It seems fitting that the second Managed World is about a top sea predator: sea lions in Oregon, and whether we really want wild salmon after all. This is the conflict: salmon are tasty, and sea lions like to eat them. Salmon populations are plummeting over the Pacific Northwest, but sea lions don’t care and still like to eat them, especially when the salmon are conveniently trapped against the side of a dam. So the sea lions get trapped and removed, unless somebody shoots them when they’re in the traps.

Are sea lions and cormorants really competing with people for fish? If they are, does that justify moving or killing them? What if the fish are endangered (as in the case of the Oregon salmon run)? Does it matter that sea lions are fuzzy and charismatic and about as smart as a dog?

Being just as cold-hearted as my beloved marine invertebrates, I would have said that last question was the least interesting. Who cares if the sea lions are fuzzy? It’s the ecosystem that matters. However, that is not how most people think. Read the rest of this entry »

Out of gas? Just add water!

May 21, 2008

OK, I understand that we all want a zero-emissions car, but this is getting out of hand. Just this past weekend a woman called up the Car Talk guys to ask if her husband was crazy for trying to modify the family SUV into a water-powered car. Coincidentally, veteran technology query-artist Sam and her boyfriend sent me a note a few weeks ago with a YouTube video they’d found of a newscast interviewing the inventor of just such a car. To their credit, Sam, her man, and the Car Talk caller were extremely skeptical about this seeming solution to our energy and global-warming crises. And with good reason, as it turns out (for the record, a Wikipedia entry debunks the water-fueled car, too, but I thought it a bit dense).

OK, we’ll start with what the water-powered car advocates claims it will do: Generate energy from water. How? First, electrolyze the water. That will split the water into its component elements, namely, hydrogen and oxygen. Then pump that H2 and O2 mixture (known to the Car Talk caller’s husband as “hydroxy” and the fellow in the video as “H-O-H”, but we’ll stick with the common names) over to the engine. Now burn the gasses to move the pistons and thus move the car. The waste product will be water, once again (O2 + 2H2 —–> 2H2O). Water in, water out. Perfect!

Of course, Oyster’s Garter readers are all smarty-pantses (Bet you didn’t know the plural of that word. We’re a full-service operation here at TOG.), so you’re wondering about step 1, with the electrolyzing of the water. “Where does the electricity come from?” I hear you asking. Sadly, that’s the downfall of the water-powered car. The electricity comes from the battery, of course. And where does the battery get its energy? Why, from the battery factory, of course. Well, water-powered car advocates will argue that the battery is recharged from the alternator with the normal running of the car, just like any car battery. But it takes far more energy from the battery to split the water atoms then you get back from burning the component gases (water is very stable and its bonds prefer not to break), so there’s a substantial net loss.

Ultimately, the water-powered car is not actually water-powered at all. It’s battery powered, but very inefficiently battery powered. Of course, given our current experience with fueling our cars from food, maybe it’s for the best that we don’t fuel them with water.

I’ll close with this wonderfully understated line from the Wikipedia entry:

It is theoretically possible to extract energy from water by nuclear fusion, but fusion power plants of any scale remain impractical, much less on an automotive platform.


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