Ocean plastics researcher Olga Mironenko is blogging from a research vessel somewhere in the North Pacific. Read the whole series starting here.
Next up, John Mickett, one of the principal researchers on our cruise. He is senior oceanographer at the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington.
As someone who has known John for a while, I have to add that he is an oceanographer who has done extensive fieldwork all over the planet during the 18 years he has been in the profession. Along with possessing a striking amount of oceanographic expertise, John is a philosopher with a brilliant sense of humor. However, I noticed that answering my questions made him sad – something that is entirely uncharacteristic of him.
John trying on a sheep skin he found while hiking in Iceland.
What issues in present-day oceanography do you see?
One of the problems I think we’re getting to is that we are nearing the limits of complexity that we can analyze and understand. We have already solved a lot of basic problems about how the ocean works. Now we want to understand how the systems within it interact. These interactions are very complex, and it gets harder and harder to answer the questions we are asking.
As you know, one primary goal of earth sciences is to model systems so we can predict how our planet will change. But I heard recently that if we were to model the Earth’s oceans at all scales, it would take more energy to run those computers than is presently produced on the planet.
So where is ocean science heading?
Well, first of all, it’s important to keep in mind that the ocean is changing. We assume that it is a steady thing, but it’s not. The past two years in the North Pacific have been the warmest on record, as far as the records go back, and there’s nothing steady about that.
Another thing is that I’m really worried about is that the United States, once a leader in climate action, is moving in the opposite direction now.
Does oceanography help solve any of the issues the ocean is now facing as an ecosystem?
Well, someone needs to study things like acidification and glacier melting and the physical properties of seawater to provide the data for subsequent environmental analysis. So I think science is important.
But at the same time, I’ve come to feel that science needs to communicate more with the wider public on how the ocean works and how we all depend on it, to help them develop an appreciation for it. For instance, keep reminding people that very second breath they take has been made possible by the ocean [Phytoplankton generates at least 50 percent of the Earth’s oxygen.-Olga]. I fear that we’ll just continue measuring and focusing on small things, and the Earth will fall apart in the meantime. I’ve come to ask myself: all these numbers and experiments and information coming in — where is this taking us?
I think scientists should become socially engaged. We need to get people to change their behavior, and that’s hard to do.
What do you think could solve current environmental problems?
I think well-off countries like the US cannot afford to be self-centered. We have to help poorer countries cover the basic necessities of their population, because how can you discuss environmental problems with someone who doesn’t know how to feed their family? What our current president has declared, “America first,” is impossible. We cannot do that. Our planet is too small for that kind of attitude.
As a scientist, I believe that it is critical to engage all stakeholders and those who use the ocean resources, like fishermen, in science and research. If they, for example, take part in studies of the fish stocks, then they would see with their own eyes why they can’t fish this particular fish species anymore, rather than just be told not to.
And we have to do something about population growth, because this is going to be our downfall.
What are the biggest problems facing oceans?
My biggest concern would be ocean acidification — because most experiments show most animals don’t fare that well in an ocean with a lower pH — and fish stock depletion. These massive fish factories scouring the ocean for protein are appalling.
How does all of that impact your family’s everyday choices?
We bike a lot. We have one car, which runs on biodiesel for what it’s worth. And we’ve had it since 2005. We have our own garden, and we try to give our young daughter as much education about natural world as possible.
When it comes to our future, are you an optimist or a pessimist?
I might have been an optimist before the presidential election here in the US. But right now, I feel I had overestimated people’s level of education and their values.