Changing Climate Means Changing Oceans

John Bruno, marine ecologist, associate professor, department of biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, N.C.

R. Steve Nerem, professor, department of aerospace engineering sciences, associate director, Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo.

Hajo Eicken, professor, Geophysical Institute and the department of geology and geophysics, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska

Margaret Leinen, transitioning to new position: executive director, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, associate provost of marine and environmental initiatives,
Florida Atlantic University, currently: director, Climate Response Fund, Washington, D.C.

Steve Gaines, dean, Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Scientists who study the oceans say the effects of climate change are already being seen in the world's oceans. From acidification and warming temperatures to sea-level rise and sea-ice loss, Ira Flatow and guests look at how the oceans are changing with changes in climate.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

When you hear the words climate change, chances are you think about its effects on the land, right, and talk about drugs and crops and glaciers. But some scientists say we shouldn't be calling it climate change. We should be calling it ocean change, because the oceans are, literally, choking, they say, on greenhouse gases.

They're becoming more acidic. There are changes in ocean circulation patterns, fisheries, corals, plankton, shellfish. They are all being affected by the changing water.

There's also more water in the oceans than ever before. Sea level is rising as polar ice and glaciers are melting, and even the water itself is expanding as it warms up.

So what does that mean for those that live on islands or along the coast? Rising oceans? That's what we'll be talking about today. We're broadcasting from a conference of the National Council for Science and the Environment. Our changing oceans is the theme of the conference, and we'll be talking about our changing oceans this hour.

And if you would like to join the discussion, please step up the microphone right here in the building, in the auditorium that we're sitting in. Or go to our website at SCIENCEFRIDAY.com. We're welcoming your tweets @scifri, at S-C-I-F-R-I. Or you could phone us: 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

Let me introduce my guests. John Bruno is marine ecologist and associate professor in the department of biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Thanks for being with us today.

Professor JOHN BRUNO (Biology, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill): Thanks for covering this topic, Ira.

FLATOW: Steve Nerem is a professor in the department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He's also the associate director of the Colorado Center for Aerodynamics Research there.

Thanks for being with us today.

Professor STEVE NEREM (Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder): It's great to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Margaret Leinen is the director of the Climate Response Fund. She is incoming executive director of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and associate provost of the Marine Environmental Initiatives at Florida Atlantic University.

Thanks for being with us today.

Dr. MARGARET LEINEN (Director, Climate Response Fund): My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Steve Gaines is the dean of the School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He's also on a panel for a National Research Council series of reports called America's Climate Choices.

Professor STEVE GAINES (Dean, School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California-Santa Barbara): Pleasure to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you.

John Bruno, let me begin with you, because I was sort of paraphrasing you about the ocean. It's not climate change. It's ocean change. That's your opinion, your view of this.

Prof. BRUNO: It is. In fact, most of the heat from greenhouse gases is going directly into the ocean, about 94 percent, compared to about the other six percent going into the atmosphere and the lands. And it's having just profound changes on ocean ecosystems.

FLATOW: How can I - where would see that happening most rapidly? Which ocean ecosystems?

Prof. BRUNO: I think probably the Arctic, and the Antarctic.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. BRUNO: Yeah, the high poles, where it's warming most quickly. But there's certainly profound changes on tropical environments like coral reefs, sea grass beds. It's really global, and just amazing to see it.

FLATOW: I was reading some research about what's going on in Antarctica and how we may have these crunching fish, the fish that like to crunch bones coming back, like they've never been there before - or haven't been there for like tens of millions of years.

Prof. BRUNO: That's right. So the Antarctic benthos - so the sea floor of the Antarctic between zero and 300 or 400 feet - is a really special environment. So there haven't been bone-crushing predators there for tens of millions of years. So there's no big crabs. There's no elasmobranch sharks and rays.

And as a result, the animals there are these big juicy, squishy animals. They're undefended from predators, and that's all going to change in our lifetimes. There's king crabs already moving in, and sharks and rays will be there definitely by the end of the century.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Prof. BRUNO: Yeah. There's not a physical barrier. It's a purely physiological barrier. Those big, active predators just can't handle the cold waters of the Antarctic. But it's warming rapidly, and it's going to let them all in.

FLATOW: And we're also seeing changes in the other end of the pole, in the Arctic regions, too, whether the ice-free regions, changes in fisheries that are going to - that would be happening up there.

Prof. BRUNO: Yeah. And we talk a lot about Arctic sea ice melting, and what you usually hear about that is polar bears are losing habitat, and ships are going to be able to go across the top of the earth. And that will be great for trade routes. But the really profound ecological impact is in opening of an exchange between the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.

There's going to be hundreds or thousands of species moving from the Bering Sea through a new Arctic sea. It'll be ice-free. There will be sea grass on the bottom, there'll be marine mammals and birds.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. BRUNO: It'll be like a normal ocean into the North Atlantic. It will just profoundly change the whole composition of the system.

FLATOW: We're going to actually talk to someone up there this hour, get a little bit more on the perspective from someone who's on the scene. And in the meantime, though, Margaret Leinen, one of the big effects of increased CO2 levels is ocean acidification.

Dr. LEINEN: That's right, Ira. This change that's happening as a result of the CO2 that we're putting into the atmosphere is not just about climate and temperature. It's also about the chemistry of the ocean. And about a third of the CO2 that we put into the atmosphere winds up in the ocean. And what it does is it dissolves in the ocean. And just like the CO2 that powers your soda pop, it forms an acid.

And that acid, the small increase in the acid is already affecting shellfish aquaculture off the coast of Oregon and Washington. And it has the potential for affecting corals and a host of other organisms.

FLATOW: In fact, the corals are dying all over the world, aren't they?

Dr. LEINEN: Well, the death of corals or the stress on corals that we see now is a combination of effects. One of the major effects is warming, and so corals are in - many corals are in shallow water. They're feeling the heat first. It's putting a lot of stress on them.

There are also corals that are also under assault from pollution. And we're nearing the point that corals in the tropics would be affected by acidification.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Steve Gaines, your research is in fisheries management, and I talked about at the beginning ocean levels rising. Sea levels are rising. How are fish populations affected by all of this climate change?

Prof. GAINES: Well, surprisingly, about 20 percent of the protein that people eat comes from the sea. I think most people don't think it has - it's anywhere near that high. And climate change is going to have a big impact on that, because when species move towards the poles, it changes the types of fish you can catch in one place.

When warming reduces the productivity of the ocean by making phytoplankton be more nutrient-limited in parts of the ocean, it makes the food webs that depend upon that phytoplankton decrease in abundance. And so there's potential for fairly dramatic declines and rearrangement of where the fish occur.

FLATOW: You mean big - the fish want to go where the water is colder, so they move towards the poles?

Prof. GAINES: Sure.

FLATOW: And that's happening already?

Prof. GAINES: We've seen it already. And so there's - there - because of the fact that we keep records on where fish are caught, we're able to reconstruct how they've moved. And in the North Atlantic in particular, there's evidence for a fairly dramatic movement towards the poles for a large number of species of fish already, even in the last couple of decades.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And there used to a natural barrier to them, because there used to be more ice, right, at the pole. And certainly in the north - or in the Arctic region, that ice is gone.

Prof. GAINES: That's correct. There are also other places, though, where there are still barriers. And so there are some places where this movement's not going to be possible. And so then, instead of species being able to move, they run into barriers - whether it's either collisions of currents or major areas without habitat that it can potentially drive extinction, instead.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Steve Nerem, we - I was talking yesterday, here, I was talking to General Walsh, who is involved in the Army Corps of Engineers, and very much involved in the shorelines of the Mississippi and other places along here. And he was talking about as ocean levels rise, we don't really have a plan for 50, 100, 200 years from now. But these ocean levels are going to keep rising, aren't they?

Prof. NEREM: Yes, they are. And we don't really have a plan, but the - we have a lot of great satellite measurements now that are telling us that sea level is going up about an inch a year, a little more than an inch a year.

FLATOW: An inch a year?

Prof. NEREM: An inch a decade, I'm sorry.

FLATOW: An inch a decade. But that's pretty - for a coastline like, you know, Louisiana in the gulf, that's a lot, isn't it?

Prof. NEREM: It is a lot. And then there's - you know, we're looking at projections for the future, and there's a lot of people now who are thinking that a meter by 2100 is well within the range of possibility.

FLATOW: What is the range of possibility?

Prof. NEREM: Well, that's the big question. That's where all the research is right now. It's what people are looking at. You know, a meter is in that range, but from 80 centimeters up to a meter and a half is probably a good bet.

FLATOW: And could something happen to accelerate that, unexpectedly? Could we have more ice melting in Greenland or Antarctica or something?

Prof. NEREM: Well, definitely. It's, you know, the components of sea level change are really thermal expansion, which is about a third of what we have right now. Mountain glaciers outside of Greenland and Antarctica are another third. But that's really the big ice sheets that have the most water locked in them, and we have six meters of potential sea level rise in Greenland, 60 meters in Antarctica. And that's where, you know, the potential for something that we didn't anticipate could happen sooner than we think.

FLATOW: And John Bruno, does Dr. Doom(ph) of the oceans figure into all of what you're talking about?

Prof. BRUNO: It absolutely does. We're worried that we're going to start losing coastal habitats like sea grass beds, salt marshes, mangroves, as sea level rise becomes too quick for those habitats to keep up with - coral reefs, as well.

FLATOW: Because those mangroves can't move anywhere, can they?

Prof. BRUNO: They can move, so they do naturally accrete vertically. Coral reefs, all four of those habitats, accrete. In fact, they really depend on sea level rise to build these big habitats that we, you know, really use now. But if sea level rise gets too rapid, they just get drowned, effectively.

FLATOW: Should there be some planning to - how to overcome this? Or even - or to recognize that there's nothing - that even if we stopped putting CO2 in the atmosphere now, there's going to be a sea level rise for X numbers of decades, right? Is there any planning that we can do to adapt to that change?

I'll ask any of you. I mean, should there be some sort of planning? Should we be thinking about other kinds of coral that could live in warmer water, or find, you know, ways to make sure that the fisheries in the North Pole don't get impact? Steve, anything that we could be planning on?

Prof. NEREM: Well, I think there is some planning that's going on in terms of coastal infrastructure that I'm aware of. But a lot of them don't know what number to plan for. Because of the uncertainty in the science, I think, you know, more needs to be invested in studying the problem so we can have better projections of what's going to happen in 100 years or 200 years.

FLATOW: Yeah. And that seems to be the point. We don't know what that number is or what to plan for. Yeah. You can bring - we can bring all these Dutch scientists in to tell us how to build dikes and things, but we don't know what that number is going to be.

Prof. NEREM: I mean, I know a lot of groups that are planning for 55 inches of sea level rise by 2100 because that's one number that's out there in the literature. But it's got a big uncertainty associated with it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. If you want to ask a question in the audience, please step up the mic. And you can also send us a question @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I.

We're talking about oceans this hour in Washington. And a lot of people are interested, and people just don't seem to know how to - it's a large subject to grasp. It's a big project.

Are we able to handle a big project like this? Or are we just - is this something just beyond us - beyond our abilities? I mean, our abilities to handle a giant project. Let's - we'll ask that question to our audience. 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Tweet us at @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I.

We have to go to a break. We'll be right back. Stay with us. We'll come back here from Washington. Don't go away.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about how climate changing is changing the oceans. My guests are John Bruno, Steve Nerem, Margaret Leinen and Steve Gaines. And also, we want to talk about the effects of climate change where they appear to be most obvious, and as we mentioned before, that's in the warming Arctic regions where we see images of polar bears stranded on sea ice.

But more than polar bears are being affected by the changing sea ice. And joining us by phone from Anchorage to talk more about it is Hajo Eicken. He is the professor of the Geophysical Institute and the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. And he served on the advisory panel for this conference.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Eicken.

Dr. HAJO EICKEN (Geophysical Institute and the Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Alaska at Fairbanks): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: When we talked with you back - way back in 2007, when we were in Alaska, you were up there in the Arctic. What we didn't know then in 2007 would be that that year turned out to be the worst on record for the sea ice.

Dr. EICKEN: Yeah, that's right. When we talked, that was in June, I believe. We were just starting to see what turned out to be a record ice retreat to a record minimum, at least since 1979. In 2007, we had about a quarter less sea ice at the end of the summer than we had at the - during the previous record minimum, which was set in 2005. So 2007 was really a very, very remarkable year, and something that's been quite unusual.

FLATOW: Is it too short a time to talk about changes since then, since 2007?

Dr. EICKEN: No. I would say - I mean, what we've seen is that since, in 2008, and in particular in the North American Arctic, we even had less sea ice than in 2007. And since the total summer ice extent has been hovering around values comparable to 2007, a bit more. But it's clear - based on what we know now about changes in the ice thickness and the composition of the Arctic ice pack -that definitely, things are quite different now than even from, say, five years ago.

FLATOW: Well, I still - so do you think that trend is going to continue, that the sea ice will be less and less? Can that happen?

Dr. EICKEN: Well, yeah. I mean, you - you know, you might have discussed this earlier already, but, of course, if you look at climate model projections, it's clear that they show an overall trend of decreasing summer ice extent. The question, of course, is - and that's something that I think a lot of people are looking at very carefully now - is that both the models, as well as what we're seeing now, suggests that things are going to be much more variable.

We've lost a lot of the big, thick old ice, which provides a bit of sort of -it's almost like a flywheel in the sense that even if you have an anomalous summer, there's enough inertia in the system if you have a lot of this thick ice, to just keep things on an even level. Now that we have less of that thick ice, it's clear that ice conditions are going to be more variable, in particular at the regional level, and that the predictability of the ice cover - at least on those time scales of a few years - may be reduced.

But overall, it seems to be clear that we're looking at what - what is now part of this decline of the Arctic ice.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I know that you have started on a new project since we last spoke. You're looking at what you can learn about the ice from native peoples. Can you tell us about that?

Dr. EICKEN: Well, what's, you know, working in Alaska, of course, we see a lot of these changes firsthand. And as we're seeing more and more activity in the Arctic, also - in part, not so much a result of the changing ice cover, but just the larger scale - large-scale global economic development. Of course, the question is, well, how do these changes that everybody is well aware of at the pan-Arctic level, how do they actually play out at the regional level?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EICKEN: And what you find is, if you talk to an Alaska native or other ice experts around the circum-Arctic, is that people in a lot of these coastal communities already have moved on. They're not discussing anymore about, you know, are there changes, how large are they, but they've really started to change the way they live with the ice cover.

We've been working with people in the community of Barrow, and communities on St. Lawrence Island, and in the Bering Sea. And you really do see that these people have changed the way they hunt amongst the ice, the way they travel over the ice cover. And a lot of that deep knowledge and insight that these local experts have can also provide us - at least at the local and the regional level - with interesting insights into, you know, how is it that we can better predict ice, in particular in order to ensure safe operations and overall environmental security, if you will?

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Eicken, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today, and good luck with...

Dr. EICKEN: Well, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: We'll check back up there with you as we follow the seasons.

Dr. EICKEN: All right.

FLATOW: Hajo Eicken is a professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

Still with me here at the Oceans Conference in Washington are John Bruno, Steve Nerem, Margaret Leinen, and Steve Gaines. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

Let's go to the audience for a question here.

CAMERON (Audience Member): Hi. Cameron from the Olympic peninsula on the other Washington. And I'm just wondering, what are all these changes - like the acidification, the migration, the sea level rise - what are they going to have - what effects are they going to have on aquaculture, and like maybe even the price of food?

Dr. LEINEN: Well, ocean acidification is already having a big impact on aquaculture. And right now, NOAA is having to predict events when the low - or the high CO2 water will come up on shore. And aquaculture farms in Oregon and Washington are having to pull the larvae out of the water because the acidity of the water is too high for them to survive.

So that's something that the shellfish aquaculture people are very concerned about, the Pacific Fishery Council is concerned about, NOAA. And they expect to see it increase.

FLATOW: All right. Good question. Yes, sir.

Mr. DARRYL CARNES (Audience Member): Yes. Darryl Carnes, Rivers Institute, Biology Department, Hanover College. As an educator, I'm concerned about creating a generation of eco-fatalists. And I'm wondering what message of hope and change the panel would have for students interested in the study of the natural world.

Prof. BRUNO: Well, Ira asked can we tackle this project, and I think we absolutely can. I mean, look at the cities we've built. We've gone to the moon. We created the iPad. I mean, there's no question we can tackle this problem. I mean, we already know what the solutions are. We just have to, you know, do it.

And the thing I'd say to students is there's still a lot of wonderful, amazing wild places in the ocean. I mean, there's reefs we go to in the Bahamas that are just phenomenal, with lots of sharks and healthy coral. So, I mean, it's a system that's definitely still savable, and we're saving it.

FLATOW: Well, if you have dozens and dozens of congresspeople who don't believe in global warming, how are you going to handle this problem and get something done there?

Prof. BRUNO: We're going to take them scuba diving and let them see it firsthand.

FLATOW: Seriously?

Prof. BRUNO: I'd love to, sure.

Prof. NEREM: Take them to Greenland to see the melting ice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But is this - is this not a - something - is it not a question of science? The science is there. Or is it a question of perception? Is it a question of dogmatic beliefs in things that nothing you can show people will change their minds if they want to not believe it?

Prof. NEREM: Yeah. I think once - if you can talk about the science, then it's an easy argument, you can show them the data and they'll believe it. But when it becomes a political question, then it becomes more emotional and it's very hard to make progress there.

FLATOW: Steve Gaines?

Prof. GAINES: Yeah. The other side of this is that most of the problems on the science and uncertainty is really in predicting the consequences. It's not really understanding the cause. The cause says a very simple set of things, you know, it's release of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that's causing this whole suite of things.

And so if we look at it in the context of adapting to change, that's a very complicated thing to do, because we have to really understand the details of how the system's going to respond to be able to think about how you would specifically adapt to a whole suite of different kinds of changes. So it's easier to fix the problem than it is to adapt.

FLATOW: Well, if you talk in dollars and cents, those are things that people can understand.

Prof. GAINES: That's right.

FLATOW: And one of the things I always ask whenever I have a discussion like this, is why is no one - or I haven't much about it. Why do you not hear, in the comparison, what the consequences of not doing something are? In other words, or the consequences - if the oceans are going to rise - let's say they're going to rise a meter, three feet, or six feet, or whatever - why don't we throw into that calculation the cost of moving everybody or their people, or building the dikes, the dams or whatever, to hold back the flooding and whatever. You never see that figure of the Lord-knows-how-many trillions of bucks that would cost to do, thrown into the equation, versus not doing anything.

Dr. LEINEN: Well, there have been estimates of the cost of not taking action. You usually don't see them in terms of the whole cost, you know...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LEINEN: ...oceans and...

FLATOW: Why not?

Dr. LEINEN: Because it's - because people tend to concentrate and have expertise on a particular area. So they can tell you the cost of sea level rise in Southeast Florida, or they can tell you the cost of not doing anything about ocean acidification to shellfish aquaculture. It's a bigger effort to try to take all of that and put it together.

FLATOW: But that's what it requires doesn't it? I mean, it's going to be affecting everybody on the coasts everywhere in the world, and certainly in this country. And when you say, you know, it's going to cost too much to do away or - to cost us the jobs and whatever to cap carbon and things like that, no one - I don't hear other critics or - saying, well, but if you don't do that, the ocean level rise, it's going to cost you even more to shore up the coastline.

Dr. LEINEN: Well, I think this - that people do respond more to the thing that is in their backyard. So I know what the federal deficit is. And I know what might be in - a response to that. When I hear how much a tax burden that might be, it brings it home to me. So if you know what the impact is for your area of concern, I think it's easier for you to make a judgment and say: Yes. It's worth it. I want take action.

Prof. GAINES: There's also a big effect of the timing, of when you have to pay those two costs. And so the...

FLATOW: Let somebody else pay.

Prof. GAINES: That's - well, that's exactly it. In one case, it's the cost that's going to be paid by future generations, and it may be a much, much larger number, but that's part of the problem.

Dr. NEREM: I think a point was made this week that, you know, we often talk about what's going to happen when sea level rise by 2100, and that's beyond most people's horizons and that we need to start talking about what can happen in 2050 to bring it more back to them.

FLATOW: Well, as General Walsh, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said this week, we deal in 200-year terms. Say - as someone who's used to building things that take decades, you say, we have to, you know - it takes 50 years to start on something.

Dr. LEINEN: But the people who set his budget...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LEINEN: ...deal in 20 to 50 years at maximum.

FLATOW: And there's the disconnect, isn't it? We can't think about or we don't want to think about what those long-term - that's not to discourage the students from getting involved in trying to do something about it.

Yes, sir.

Dr. MARK EAKIN (Coordinator, NOAA's Coral Reef Watch program): Thanks, Ira. Mark Eakin with NOAA. A question that really comes to mind to follow on to what you've been raising, is at this point, the science is solid. There's great agreement in the scientific community. Our work in coral reefs, we're seeing reefs dying already as a result of bleaching high temperatures. But on the other hand, we just can't seem to get through to implement changes, policy level changes, at the level of the government or internationally.

James Lovelock has even said humans are too stupid to solve the climate change problem. So how do we - what's the optimism? How do we get past that? What do we do when budgets are bad and all of these things are long term and people are thinking short term? What are the next steps? How do we get people to look at making changes to help protect the oceans and the atmosphere?

Prof. GAINES: Well, in earlier session that we had on this, somebody argued minds can't be changed. Education doesn't work. And, frankly, I think we have evidence that it can. Minds have been in changed, but in the wrong direction, over the last couple of years. So at least 10 to 30 percent fewer people believe in climate change today, than just, you know, five or 10 years ago. So the media has influenced their opinion on this and, obviously, we have to swing this back the other way.

FLATOW: We're talking about oceans this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow, here in Washington, with our guests.

I always said that - because we've been doing this on different - not just the oceans. We talk about earthquakes. You know, geological survey doesn't have enough money to do this because of, you know, money is taken from there. We've talked about hurricanes and NOAA losing money for SANS to take the ocean temperatures or for wind speeds or things like that and thing - over the years, over the decades.

I've always said, you know, if Washington were sitting on the fault line, you'd get the money you need, you know? If Washington were in the hurricane zone, you'd get that money you need because it would be on everybody's mind. You know, we're sitting here in Washington, which is basically built on a swamp, you know? When George Washington was around, this was all landfill we're all sitting on. Maybe a huge rise in the sea level here, we'll get some attention because we're sitting right on the water.

Prof. GAINES: You know, I think we're really all talking about saving money rather than spending money. I mean, all of the ecosystem services that we're concerned about are immensely valuable, and they far outweigh the cost of any, you know, remediation of climate change.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But you have to make that case.

Prof. GAINES: We do have to make that case.

FLATOW: You have to make that case.

Prof. GAINES: Absolutely right.

FLATOW: If you're interested in, you know...

Prof. GAINES: That's right. And some of these services are difficult to evaluate. And in some places - so I just was in Australia for a while and they know how much the Great Barrier Reef is worth. It's worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tourism and fisheries. And the government is very keenly aware of that and how quickly it's being degraded. And they are starting to, you know, make - take steps forward to protect it.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get a phone call quickly before the break. John in Crestview, Florida. Hi, John. Are you there? John?

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

JOHN: Yes. Hey, I was just wondering, you know, we're pretty industrious people and, you know, the rivers dump a lot of fresh water into the oceans of the world. Is there any way that we could dam up the rivers, pump the water out west and create reservoirs out west, and wetlands, and help not raise the -drop the salinity of the oceans - and do that worldwide with all the oceans?

FLATOW: All right. A giant - thanks for calling. A giant civil engineering - is that something you want to do? Is that a wise thing to do? Steve?

Prof. NEREM: Well, you know, there are a lot of proposals that've been...

FLATOW: People are thinking out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NEREM: There are thinking very creatively about a lot of aspects of geo-engineering climate where - but most of them are like this proposal, where -even if they work - all they do is deal with one of the symptoms of climate change. And the unintended consequences in a scenario like that, of course, would be really dramatic. But, I mean, there are lot of different geo-engineering scenarios that have been put on the table to, you know, paint roads white and rooftops white, and things along these lines, which can deal with some of the cooling aspects and heating aspects. But they don't solve all of the problems.

FLATOW: And so, what would be one that had the best effect, do you think, if you wanted to think of one. Would it be capping greenhouse gas emission? Would it be...

Prof. NEREM: Well, I mean, I think, in the long term, we need a budget for carbon that we're putting in the atmosphere. And a budget that sets caps, and then pretty drastic reductions and a mechanism of driving those. And there are a number of proposals in the NRC report as to different options about how you could get there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Would changing our energy, wouldd be going nuclear or some other, you know, green energy would be better? John, you're shaking your head.

Prof. BRUNO: Yeah. I mean, we have to find alternative fuels, which is essentially what Steve is getting at, and halting and reducing deforestation. Deforestation accounts for just as much greenhouse gas emission as all transportation combined.

FLATOW: No kidding?

Prof. BRUNO: Yeah. It's incredible. So 20 percent of greenhouse gases comes from deforestation, almost entirely in Brazil. So, in one country, just halting that makes a big dent to where we've got to get.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more about the oceans and the impact of global warming and climate change on the oceans. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. My guests are John Bruno, associate professor at the University of North Carolina; Steve Nerem, professor at the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder; Margaret Leinen, chair of this Changing Oceans Conference. And she's director of the Climate Response Fund. Steve Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Stay with us. We'll be right back, taking more of your questions after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about climate change and its effects on the oceans this hour, on a special broadcast from Washington. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. We seem to have hit upon a problem - or a huge problem - in trying to coordinate lots of different things, and a big problem of having different parts to it.

Steve Gaines, if the problem is so big and it's - it extends for hundreds of years, might not we create a special cabinet-level position of, you know, director of climate change or something like that, to just coordinate all the different places that this affects?

Prof. GAINES: Well, there - I mean, there are attempts within the government to coordinate activities on climate change, because it is such a big issue that it requires action across a wide range of agencies, and that coordination is absolutely critical, I think, in terms of successfully meeting the challenge of this kind of a problem.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. John, do you agree with that?

Prof. BRUNO: Absolutely, yeah.

FLATOW: We need something - how is it - you think it's possible?

Prof. BRUNO: Well, we're getting there. We have the NOAA office of climate change. It's an incredible new organization that's pulling together climate change scientists from lots of different aspects of the government and pulling them all together in one office. So we're starting to take steps towards that.

FLATOW: All right. Let's see what questions we have in the audience here. Yes?

KASSIA(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, I'm Kassia from Smith College, and I was wondering about methods for combating increased erosion associated with sea level rise for specific shoreline types, and if such methods were being developed or if the focus was more on coastal defense.

FLATOW: Good question because that's one of the - some of the fallout of sea level rise, right? Margaret, do you want to comment on it?

Dr. LEINEN: Yeah. That's a very interesting question. And people are very concerned about approaching this problem only by building defenses. And in fact, there is a session at this meeting called maladaptation to climate change. And the maladaptation would be, you know, just building bigger concrete walls.

So people are concerned with understanding how quickly the plants that grow along the shore, like mangroves, can move. They're concerned about the supply of sediment from rivers to the ocean, and also the erosion. They're also concerned about water and how, with sea level rise, the saltwater intrudes into water systems, aquifers.

So, not only is there research on this, but there are several agencies that have very active programs in adaptation. NOAA has programs in coastal adaptation. Department of Transportation has a big program looking at highways and how major transportation will have to change as well.

FLATOW: So it's - thank you for that question. So it's not just a question of building walls to keep the sea out. There are other solutions and other adaptations that should be thought about.

Dr. LEINEN: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Any other panelist want to comment on that? And do we have people really thinking about those solutions who can implement them?

Dr. LEINEN: I think that there - this is a growing area. And a few years ago, there weren't too many people doing research or having programs on adaptation. But this has really blossomed in the last four or five years. So, we see it both in research agendas, how do you understand what's going on, both in the science side and on the engineering side. And we also see it in agencies. And it's going to be a major focus of what's called the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which is another of these coordinated governmental efforts.

FLATOW: Steve Nerem?

Prof. NEREM: I would just add that, you know, how you defend would depend on how quickly the sea level rises. There are things that you might be able to do that if you had 200 years, you would do. But if you don't have that much time, then you might...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. NEREM: ...go to another route. And so that's going to be a big part of figuring out what to - how to plan.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Ricardo in San Francisco. Hi.

RICARDO (Caller): Hello. And good afternoon to everyone and thank you for bringing up such an important scientific program event here, this Friday. I'd like to mention something about oceans and acidity levels and what we are doing that is generally regarded as geo-engineering in the process of CO2 subterranean storage and carbon-consuming algae.

Now, we put 600 million tons of CO2, from burning fossil fuels, in the atmosphere every week. And so we have these processes that now come out recently in very basic science magazines for the public. One of them is Science Illustrated "Engineering Earth." That is May-June 2010. And...

FLATOW: Ricardo, we don't have access to these magazines, so you've got to tell us - get to your point quicker.

RICARDO: Yeah. The facts are that we're putting a lot of CO2 into the oceans and then consuming - trying to consume the CO2 with algae putting tons and tons of iron, which is causing dead zones like the red tide zones in our oceans, but man-related because we're doing it ourselves as Petri dish - as a Petri dish processing situation for ourselves. We don't know the outcome, but we know that we may be causing more harm by geoengineering, putting things in our ocean and also the sequestration of CO2 in large crevasses in the oceans may percolate up through ocean quakes, sea quakes over time and really cause...

FLATOW: Let me get...

RICARDO: ...ocean destruction.

FLATOW: Thanks for the call. Let me get any reactions, any reaction to that?

Dr. LEINEN: Yeah. Ricardo was talking about an idea that has come from the scientific community. They understand that in many areas of the world ocean, the phytoplankton that are at the base of the food chain are limited by iron. And so, they've proposed the idea that you might be able to stimulate that and, like other plants, they take up CO2.

What has not happened is that we're not actually doing that. We're not geoengineering the ocean with iron. But there are proposals to do research on it to find out what the consequences of that would be or even if it would work.

FLATOW: Do you have personal experience with that?

DR. LEINEN: I do have personal experience with it. My own research area was in this. And I also studied the history of iron and whether it fertilized the ocean in the past, during glacial times.

FLATOW: Does it have potential, do you think?

Dr. LEINEN: Theoretically, it has potential. The devil is, as always, in the details. And so, scientists have proposed to do experiments that would test not only whether it works but what the consequences would be.

FLATOW: Okay. Let's go to the - yes. Step up to the mic, please.

Ms. JESSICA CULVERHOUSE (Program Manager, National Environmental Education Foundation): Hi. My name is Jessica Culverhouse. I'm with the National Environmental Education Foundation. And my question is, what would you all say to someone who lives in an inland state who doesn't believe these issues of sea level rise and acidification will affect their lives?

Prof. NEREM: I'll start with that one. I mean, sea level rise is just kind of part of a broader problem with the global water cycle. I mean, sea level rise is really an exchange of water between the land and the oceans. And so, in a bigger picture, you look at the global water cycle, those can be problems with lack of water on land.

So like, I'm in Colorado studying sea level change, and our big concern is the ice and snow in the mountains because that provides all of our summer water, and that leads to discussions about drought and other things. And then there'll be other areas of the country that might have more water than they're used to. So if you look out on the bigger picture of the global water cycle, it's definitely impacting everybody and not just those who live along the coast.

FLATOW: You know, I had a thought about this a while back when I was on vacation, scuba diving, you know, looking at the coral reefs and how they're gone. The reefs I used to go to 20 years ago - and I'm talking about some of them in the Caribbean - I used to get lost in seas of Elkhorn coral that are just all gone now.

I mean, it's hard to believe that. And I'd go to another - I go to a dive site on a tour, and I do a little snorkeling and, you know, the tour guy is saying, isn't this coral wonderful? And I'd come up and I'm saying, this coral is dead. You're bringing tourists to dead coral, and they don't even know it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, I mean, isn't this the teaching moment in the tourist industry? To say, if you want to see this coral, it's dying, and we'll get to see it now because we don't know when it's going to be around. But this is something that brings to the public and another industry something that they never get to see before on vacation, you know, where it really hits them, not only in the pocketbook but when they were getting to see something they might not expect to see as an educational value. So, I mean, this is a teaching moment if there ever is one.

Prof. NEREM: It's like going to Glacier National Park to see the glaciers before they're gone.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. You know - but to say to people, you don't believe that things are warming or that things are bad? Look, you can't even go see the coral that used to be around here years ago or the glaciers. What more evidence do you need, for at least, in a long term - because we always talk about, you can't look at any one element as evidence of global warming. But you can see some of the consequences that might have right here. And I just think those are interesting ways to bring the point home. Yes.

Ms. GLENNA DEBOSKY(ph) (Audience Member): Hi. I'm Glenna Debosky from the University of Rochester in New York. And my question is, I know Steve mentioned that capping the amount of CO2 emissions would be one way to remedy this situation. But is it reasonable to believe that we are past the point of no return? And should we be doing something else to solve this problem? And my other question is, what do you see at - to be the role of communities facing climate change?

FLATOW: Are, have we reached the tipping point? And now we're not going to prevent, you know, some of these things from happening. Let's try to make the best of it or to...

Ms. DEBOSKY: Well - or should we be doing something more?

FLATOW: Something different...

Ms. DEBOSKY: Something else.

FLATOW: ...something else that's not going to prevent it but maybe doing something that help make it not as bad.

Ms. DEBOSKY: Or something to reverse those effects.

FLATOW: Reverse - something. Steve?

Prof. NEREM: I mean, this is an area of a lot of debate, as to how close we are to tipping points. Because if you look at the scientific projections, they're not linear in terms of how these things happen in the future. And that - yeah, this is not my area of expertise, but it is an area of really intense debate. And there is a lot of question about how close we are, which, I think, creates urgency, given the uncertainty of where those tipping points are. Take more action now rather than to wait and be certain that we're beyond the tipping point.

FLATOW: Well, John was talking about reforestation or prevention of deforestation as being a huge impact.

Prof. BRUNO: It's really incredible. Yeah, I only learned about that myself about a year or two ago, what a big impact that is.

FLATOW: So there is something tangible?

Prof. BRUNO: And that's where red came from. So, in Copenhagen that's the one real positive thing of Copenhagen's. I think they got awareness to - even scientists who study climate, how important deforestation was and adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

FLATOW: All right, let's...

Dr. LEINEN: Another area is marshlands and the coastal areas. They're incredible areas for carbon sequestration. And there were sessions at this meeting that talked about the percentage of CO2 that could be removed from the atmosphere by restoring wetlands areas of seagrass, coastal plants, et cetera.

FLATOW: Here's a question from Second Life, SCIENCE FRIDAY's in Second Life. Asking, are any religious groups taking the lead and supporting solutions for global climate change? There have been some religious groups saying, you know, we're stewards of the Earth.

Dr. LEINEN: Yes, this is - it's really interesting, because different religions have different perspectives on this. But, yes, there is a strong tradition in some Western religions that we are stewards of the Earth. And we're beginning to see some of the large religious groups that support - that take positions on national issues, talk about this and say that we have to take action.

FLATOW: We're talking about the oceans and climate change this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Washington.

Yes, ma'am?

Ms. LINDA LOWENFELD(ph) (Audience Member): Linda Lowenfeld. Let's talk about water. The sense of scale of the problem - somebody has said in the sessions that Jim Hansen, who is the head of NASA still, that the feedback mechanisms are happening actually twice as fast as we have perceived them to be and with so much complexity laid on the table in terms of people in different silos and lack of communication. And I wondered where the sense of urgency is and where the reaction to that urgency could come from? What could drive action to become faster and more diffused through the populations locally and nationally and internationally?

FLATOW: It's - what's the famous Gilbert and Sullivan word? It's a conundrum or whatever that is?

Ms. LOWENFELD: Or it's "Network," and I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I guess we need that kind of, you know, roots - grassroots up, like that happened in that movie. Any reaction or what? He's not the head of NASA, Jim Hansen.

Ms. LOWENFELD: What is he then?

FLATOW: He's a scientist there. Yeah. Steve, you have any - or Steve Gaines, have any solution for...

Prof. GAINES: I don't know. That's - I mean, I think there is an enormous sense of urgency within the scientific community. I mean, if you look at the synthesis reports that have come out with the IPPC and America's Climate Choices, there's enormous amount of urgency and real strong coordinated urge to really do something dramatic about these problems. So it's not at the level of the scientists. I can tell you that. I mean, we may not be very effective at getting the message out and getting things done, but there is huge urgency, I think, within the scientific community.

Ms. LOWENFELD: But I think in a way maybe that's the problem, the communication from the scientific community. So what's the next step? What's the link between the public and the scientific community?

Dr. LEINEN: I think we need to paint a different picture about what the future will be. And the picture shouldn't be, we're going to take away everything that you have grown accustomed to in your lifestyle. You will have a different lifestyle based on energy that will be much cheaper, that will be much cleaner. Why would you want to use a dirty - a polluting fuel when you could have a different kind of energy?

And we're going to give you a better environment for you and for your children. Rather than emphasize the negative, rather than scold people about choices that they have not had a lot of ability to make, to paint a different picture and to say it's taken us, you know, 100, 150 years to get here. We're not going to get out of it in five, but let's start turning around. Let's go in a different direction.

Ms. LOWENFELD: Thank you. That's a great answer.

FLATOW: One quick last question from the audience.

Mr. STEVE ACKLESON (Audience Member): Yeah, Steve Ackleson, Office of Naval Research. I think the take-home message from this panel is that there are some very complicated problems out there that we don't know the answer to just yet. And that it's going to take a very long time to actually get those answers, and most likely the researchers that are working on those problems now will not be the researchers that solve those problems. And so my question to the panel is, how do we get more of our young people interested in sciences in general and in this problem specifically to go into the field and solve these problems?

FLATOW: Any quick answers to that, John?

Prof. BRUNO: I'd simply say, I don't think that's the take-home message from the panel. I think the message is we do know what the answers are. We know very clearly how the oceans are changing in response to climate change. And we don't know every detail, but we know a heck of a lot and we know what the solutions are. And we really just need action. So I have a very different message.

FLATOW: All right.

Prof. NEREM: And I do hope that we can solve some of these problems in my lifetime and not just my kids' lifetime.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LEINEN: But the new generation of students is very, very committed to this. When - 10 years ago, when the - there was a census of the number of environmental science departments, it was really, you know, a few handfuls. Now, there are over 200 members of this organization that are environmental science and environmental studies programs. And they are there not because of our interest. They're there because of the interest of the students.

FLATOW: Now, that's about all we have to leave it. Margaret Leinen is chair of the Changing Oceans Conference and director of the Climate Response Fund. And Steve Nerem is professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Steve Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at University of California, Santa Barbara. John Bruno is a marine ecologist and associate professor in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Thank you all for taking time to do be with us today.

Dr. LEINEN: Thank you, Ira.

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