Cold Ocean Chemistry: UAF tackles mystery of Alaska’s oceans
Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
June 1, 2011
On the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s West Ridge in Irving, there is a room that is very orange. The room houses the offices of graduate students who conduct research for the university’s new Ocean Acidification Research Center (OARC). Toy Nerf guns lay behind orange cabinets for impromptu battles.
“We love coming to work,” graduate student Jessica Cross said. Their research pieces together major changes happening in Alaska’s oceans.
When oceans suck up the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a series of chemical reactions inundates them with hydrogen in a process known as ocean acidification. Humans can’t stop this, but they can try to understand. Alaska is the best seat in the house for seeing how well marine ecosystems can adapt. The challenge is in finding the best way to probe the different aspects of ocean acidification. Jeremy Mathis and his graduate students use the OARC to tackle Alaska’s place in the oceans’ conundrum.
Mathis opened the center on West Ridge in fall 2010 as an umbrella for his students’ research. His group spent a collective 500 days at sea last year, Mathis said. The students work in the field under Mathis’s guidance. “They are the ones who get to do most of the cool science,” Mathis said.
The center anchors the many moving parts of related student projects. It also serves as the megaphone for broadcasting that research to the public. Mathis visits schools and gives public lectures.
When Mathis teaches children, he sets them up with a beaker of seawater and instructs them to blow into it using straws. Carbon dioxide from the mouths of 40 children can give seawater the acidity of lemon juice.
In the wake of ocean acidification, oceanographers seek to find out how much hydrogen is in the ocean, how much carbon dioxide is from humans and what the ocean floor tells us about climate back in the day. They can calculate this, and OARC provides some of the results of those calculations to the public.
Some lecture attendees try to catch them by saying climate change doesn’t exist – they ask for proof. The logic of ocean acidification is a series of steps, and the first few steps are often mentioned in these lectures as “assumptions” to save time. Sometimes the crew doesn’t have proof on hand for the beginning of this logical process. At that point, when asked about the basics of climate change, “it becomes your word against theirs,” Cross said.
The center facilitates collaboration as much as friendship among the students. Sometimes experimenting with fellow students yields a better understanding than approaching a professor “because if you’re wrong, you’re wrong together. Then you learn together,” said Kristen Shake, another OARC graduate student.
Stacy Reisdorph, another student, wrote a term paper that overlaps with one of Cross’s classes. “So I can lean over and say, ‘Hey, Stacy. Help me understand this. You’ve already written the paper,’” Cross said. The students also crawl through each other’s data, looking for patterns and missing pieces. They play off each other’s strengths, each approaching the data differently.
“When you all start feeding off of each other, it’s like when you’re watching a cop show … and one of them starts to tell a story, and the rest of them all start chiming in,” Cross said.
It will be the same in the scientific community – chemists, biologists, ecologists, geologists, and countless other disciplines cannot possibly tease apart this problem on their own. Scientists know ocean acidification will impact the world, but the many moving parts – ecosystems – make acute predictions difficult.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series on ocean acidification research at UAF.