Monday, October 15, 2012

For Science!

I have found how much I truly enjoy/hate every single hour away from school. The few hours I get at home are essential to my sanity, yet are saturated with thoughts consisting of, "When I get back to school, I need to..." and , "I wish I were back at school just because of..." 
Is that weird? I feel like it is, but it isn't at the same time. This paradoxical situation in my brain can be illustrated through the famous video game of Pong. Maybe I should be put in a mental institution of some sort so I can "get my life together" or at least agree with myself. I've talked to friends in the same scenario, and they've kind of admitted to this; however, I feel like I may be the only one in the extreme version of the mental state. Lord, may you keep me sane just until this semester ends!
I have yet another project in speech I feel obligated to inform you of. I unfortunately have to present a highly technical topic in an academic field and "dumb it down" so that a public audience of a high school education can understand it fully. That, I have learned through these past couple days, is easier said than done. I take this as a challenge to educate the masses of extremely complicated areas in marine biology. This won't be as awful and tortuous if I just think of this as a battle, me on the good side and masses of uneducated people on the other. I scream out as I run into the massacre, "For science!" (I won't, sadly, scream that out right before I present my technical topic in class this Thursday. I know you're disappointed.)

Phytoplankton bloom taken by NASA.
My technical topic is on oceanic iron fertilization. It sounds really interesting and boring at the same time. That's why I picked it! I learned about this through a professor in the chemistry department and became very intrigued by it. Pretty much, this guy named John Martin in the 80s and 90s hypothesized that if iron is added to the oceans, phytoplankton (like algae and diatoms) would grow like crazy and photosynthesize like crazy as well. The process of photosynthesis, if you don't know, takes in carbon dioxide as it produces oxygen. So, think about it. With more phytoplankton that photosynthesize, there would be more oxygen production and carbon dioxide absorption. Then the phytoplankton eventually die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, along with the carbon dioxide. Bam, there's the answer to the carbon dioxide problem for our atmosphere. Right? Is it really that easy of a fix?
Of course it isn't. Please don't tell me you've fallen for it! The ocean is a complicated place, so we can't just go out on a boat and hope to God that when we throw in 1,000 tons of iron, no one will get hurt and everything's as it should be. 
Let's look at this a little closer. Over the years there have been multiple research expeditions that have tested this whole idea. Some have been huge successes, like the pioneer expedition in 1994, and some have been complete busts, like one of the latest endeavors this century. I believe this has happened because the system in the experiments have been the ocean. The ocean is huge. And convoluted. And weird. And mysterious. And wild. Do you get where I'm going? No matter how many calculations and equations, the natural environment of our oceans will do whatever it wants. 
The successful expeditions have seen the following happen: the scientists carefully monitor a certain amount of dissolvable iron with chemicals and GPS systems injected into an area of the ocean once "iron-deficient." They observe an immediate phytoplankton bloom because of the iron, which dissipates after a short amount of time (like a few days). A large portion of carbon dioxide was absorbed in this time frame of the bloom.
The less-than-successful expeditions have seen something like this: the scientists throw in the iron. They watch the phytoplankton bloom as the others before them have seen. Zooplankton and copepods (predators that gorge themselves on phytoplankton) then eat all the phytoplankton from the bloom. Oops. That wasn't in the script. Just goes to show how the food chain and the forces of nature are above anything we do. 
Pseudo-nitschia, a producer of domoic acid.
Also, experts have come to observe another negative aspect in this tested hypothesis. One of the species of phytoplankton in the bloom has been the Pseudo-nitschia. Scary. These guys are known to produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid. This is toxic to other animals as well as humans. If the blooms produce huge amounts of toxic plankton, then maybe we should step back and think about the negative affects. Scientists don't even really know all the consequences of high levels of domoic acid in the ecosystem. Obviously many things will die, but how will that affect humans? Will it affect the overall toxicity of fish? Will we be swimming in a toxic ocean? Will the oceanic food chain become lop-sided? Who knows.
So, what do you think? Should experts be tossing iron into the ocean? What if they do it in the name of science? I told you that the ocean is complicated. The answers relating to situations in the ocean should be complicated as well. 
I really enjoyed learning about this subject. There's more information out there online if you want to look into it. Judge it for yourself. I know you're going to research it yourself for hours! You just can't wait to start learning, right? Nah, I know you better than that.
This subject is much more complicated than I just summarized. There are scholarly papers on iron fertilization that zoom right over my head in one sentence. Hopefully I can simplify this into something more fitting for a public audience. The ideal person I can present this to is my 80-something year old grandmother. Now that right there will be a make it or break it moment that tests how simple I have really made it. Wish me luck on my presentation! For science!


Post a Comment

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Powered by Blogger