Scientist talks CO2 and ‘cocolithophores’ in Newburyport program

NEWBURYPORT – A Harvard University scientist walked a crowd through the intricacies of carbon dioxide, the increasing acidity of oceans, and a microscopic creature called the cocolithophore Wednesday night.

Cocolithophores, George D. Buckley explained, are microscopic plankton that look like soccer balls with hubcaps attached on all sides. They live by the trillions in the Earth’s oceans and their bodies trap CO2, a greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to global warming.

Buckley, assistant director of sustainability programs and a professor at Harvard, gave the crowd at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters for the latest Storm Surge program a mini course on the impact of increased acidity on ocean creatures.

The oceans absorb large amounts of CO2, which is increasing acidity. Buckley said a slight rise in acidity can have a major impact on ocean creatures up and down the food chain.

Holding up huge barnacles from the Azores – where people eat them – as well as corals and sea scallop shells, Buckley said ocean acidification makes it difficult for many shellfish and coral to survive or to develop the shells needed to grow to maturity and breed.

Scientists are studying the tiny cocolithophores because they trap carbon dioxide and, when they die, drift slowly from the upper water column thousands of feet to the ocean floor – what Buckley called “marine snow.”

“It’s the dead material, all the things that were living in the top 100 meters of the ocean that have died and are now drifting down” to settle on the bottom.

In the case of the cocolithophores, scientists are studying whether they carry CO2 to the ocean floor when they die, and whether that is an effective way to isolate it on a large scale.

In a guest column in The Daily News recently, Lon Hackmeister, an oceanographer and Storm Surge member, asked, “Are these creatures nature’s way of cooling the planet? Or will acidification throw a wrench in the works?”

Buckley said the answers are not simple, but scientists are studying the creatures closely.

“With the ocean getting warmer and more acidic, these little things seem to have a very critical role – but we don’t understand it yet,” he said.

Buckley noted how early observers of nature were surprised to find fossilized coral and sea shells on mountain tops, until theories developed that mountains had, at one time, been undersea.

“When you look at this great Earth of ours, a lot of it was underwater,” he said. But understanding how the Earth and animals evolved has been a long, often halting, process.

“It takes a long time to validate our beliefs, but even longer to change our beliefs,” he noted.

Buckley did not try to offer easy answers or ways audience members could have an impact on global warming. But, as a longtime teacher who regularly works with high school students, he noted how the internet makes it possible to communicate science quickly and in a broad way.

Pointing to a photo projected on the screen of the White Cliffs of Dover – which are the chalky remains of sea creatures – he said, “With the internet we can have this ‘chalk talk’ around the world – 350 students in 350 places” at once.

It’s important to “get these kids engaged” in the study of science, Buckley said, noting that he is a judge and coach for students in the upcoming high school Massachusetts Envirothon on May 18 at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln.

Daily News, 28 April 2017. Article.

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