Carl E. Peterson Endowed Chair of Sciences
Ten years ago, ... cutting edge?
In 1999 in my field of marine biology (most recently working on coral reef preservation and deep-sea adaptations), global climate change and ocean degradation was the most urgent issue. By that date, both climate change, including warming, plus overexploitation of fisheries, were both becoming alarmingly apparent. In terms of pure science, a major issue then was: What is the true extent of life on this planet, especially in the oceans and subsurface? We had only explored 1 to 2 percent of the oceans at that point. The cutting-edge technology emerging then was genome analysis, that is, the deciphering of organisms’ genetic (DNA) codes. The Human Genome Project created technology that made it possible to “read” the genomes of other species much more easily than before 1999.
At the end of 1999 … what do you remember thinking, hoping, would happen in your field?
First, I hoped that we as a society would get together and start solving the environmental crises. That has obviously not happened to the extent needed. And yet, since 1999, it has become clear that climate change is accelerating, and it’s been clearly shown that humans are the primary cause (particularly via carbon dioxide release). Instead of improving, things have gotten worse in the oceans. The ice caps are melting much faster than predicted in 1999. A massive patch of floating plastic garbage has been found in the once-pristine central Pacific. Perhaps most alarmingly, carbon dioxide has been found to increase the acidity of the oceans and is starting to harm life. Coral reefs are dying off due to warming and acidity, and may be gone in 40 years. Fisheries continue to collapse around the globe. And yet there is some hope.
During the last decade, we’ve learned that the creation of Marine Protected Areas (which make breeding grounds of fish off-limits to fisheries) can actually allow a collapsed fisheries species to recover and let humans start fishing again. Second, I hoped that we’d thoroughly explore our world so we know what is there (and so we’d have a baseline for documenting changes that humanity is causing), and to use genome data to fully understand evolution. All this has indeed been happening.
In 2000, a decade-long program called the Census of Marine Life was begun by marine biologists worldwide to document all the species in the sea. We have now explored more than 5 percent of the oceans and found thousands and thousands of new species, all throughout the deep and also in a previously unknown microbial world deep beneath the seafloor. Those microbes are critical to the cycling of minerals on Earth and yet we’re only just learning about them. Genome technology has allowed us to document the existence of many microbial species, as well as to determine the evolutionary histories of all kinds of life. Genome analysis also allows us to understand the breeding patterns of animals such as whales that are difficult to study by traditional means. (For example, no one has ever seen a humpback whale or a great white shark mate.)
– Paul Yancey
In terms of breakthroughs, new ways of exploring and monitoring the oceans are now emerging. The United States in 2009 began using a new kind of robotic sub to explore the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest site. Remote environmental sensor networks, that one can access on the Internet, are being deployed. Autonomous roving subs are exploring the deep and sending back data. New improved satellite tags are being placed on migratory animals, and you can go online and follow whales, sharks, turtles, albatrosses, tunas, etc., as they rove across the sea. Their tags also send back data on temperature and other environmental factors so that we also can monitor their changing environments. In terms of environmental issues, we have to implement more Marine Protected Areas, and we must reduce CO2 emissions. Even if the public is increasingly skeptical of global warming caused by humans, they need to be aware that our excess CO2 is unquestionably acidifying the oceans. This will likely damage or kill all life with shells and skeletons (corals, clams, etc.) since acid dissolves those, and disrupts ecosystems in unpredictable ways.
Your dream department or research project?
This is an easy question if I am not realistic. I’d certainly want my own research ship and crew, and, of course, a submersible! With a ship, I’d teach marine biology by taking students all over the world. With a large deep-diving submersible I could take a whole class to the bottom of the sea, to see first-hand the otherworldly hydrothermal vents. And, of course, if I had unlimited resources, we’d fix all the environmental damage that humans have caused.
The Carl E. Peterson Chair of Sciences was established in the memory of Carl E. Peterson ’33 in 1997. Peterson was an overseer and longtime member and chair of the Whitman College Farm Committee (1970-1989).