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Columbia Energy Exchange

Re-run: What We Know About Oceans and Climate Change


Peter De Menocal

President & Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


Bill Loveless [00:00:04] Happy holidays, Bill. Here for the next two weeks, the team is off for the holidays, getting ready to ramp up our coverage in the new year. So we’ll be re-airing two episodes from 2022. Today. My conversation with Peter de Monecal about oceans and climate change this year brought a lot more awareness to how marine environments are shifting because of a warming planet. When Peter and I spoke back in February, he told me about the fascinating work taking place at the storied Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Among the activities is a collaborative program with other research centers called Ocean Visions, which explores ways to get the ocean to capture more carbon. The ocean is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. It captures one third of every unit of carbon that humans put into the atmosphere. And scientists and leaders around the world are focused on advancing ocean based climate solutions. Various coalitions and research opportunities were announced at this year’s COP 27 in Egypt, but there’s still more work to be done. Peter is the president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He’s a marine geologist and paleo climatologist with a bachelor’s of science in geology at St Lawrence University. A master’s in science in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. in geology right here at Columbia. He’s also the founding director of Columbia’s Center for Climate and Life. It’s a research accelerator that mobilizes scientists at the school’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to understand how climate impacts the essentials things like water and shelter for human life. Peter and I talked about how carbon is a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem. It gets turned into food. He also describes what the increase in ocean temperatures means for coastal communities. And just as interesting to me is his own decades of experience doing research on the seas, including a brush with pirates. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Peter Domenico, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange. 

Peter B. de menocal [00:02:16] Thanks, Bill. Great to see you again. 

Bill Loveless [00:02:18] Well, it’s great to see you as well. And well, your appointment as president and director of Woods Hole in 2020 marked a return to a place that really started you on your career back when you were a teenager. It’s a fascinating story about a hitchhike you took as a college student. Would you tell us about it? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:02:38] Yeah, and that would be a pleasure. And it’s it’s it’s interestingly a really fundamental part of my life. At 19 years old, I was an aspiring studio art major and math major. And I was actually speaking with my father probably about six months before I went on this trip. And he was kind of clucking to me, wondering what kind of a career I was going to make for myself. And I was thinking the same thing. And but back in those days, I was in upstate New York and it was a late spring day. It was cold and brisk. And I remember going to visit a friend on the Cape, and I still can’t remember where I was actually going. I did what you did in those days and I got on the road. I carved out a sign on a piece of cardboard and got on the highway and took me through the Adirondacks and then through Albany. And then my last ride, curiously enough, dropped me in front of the Woods Hole Oceanographic or requisite campus, which is really just about two miles away from my home here in Woods Hole. And I stepped out of the car and I looked out at the entrance of the of the institution. And at the time, they had all these scientists, as you know, keep out, no trespassing. And that just beckoned me in. So I went in and of course, like everybody I had known about the oceanographic, but I’d never visited it before. So I thought, okay, I’m just going to have a walk on campus. And so I walked through the campus and arrived at the Clark Building, which is this really beautiful brick edifice. And I walked in and, you know, there are these gaggles of students and these scientists and these, you know, posters everywhere and just science everywhere, computers downstairs. And it was just this vibrant intellectual hub. And I was just struck And then I get this bear paw of a hand on my shoulder. And the guy was clearly much bigger than I was and very sort of deep voice and, Son, can I help you? And I was like, No, sir, I’m just I’ll be leaving. And I’m sorry. I you know, I interrupted you and and I says, Come into my office and he wheels me around. And it’s for people who’ve been to the Clark building, they know exactly where I was brought into. This was the dean of graduate Studies. There was a person by the name of Dr. Charlie Hollister, who turns out to be my academic grandfather as well. And he then just kicked his, you know, boots up onto his table and told me the story about what it’s like to be an oceanographer. You travel around the world, you work with really interesting people. You build things, you experiment, you, you know, you discover things. It’s just it just sounded magnificent. I couldn’t believe someone would actually get paid to do this. And he he was so intoxicating that I literally I walked out of that office and into the western sunlight saying, this is what I’m going to do. And that’s what I did on that day. 

Bill Loveless [00:05:28] And it really was an experience that made you a marine geologist, a climate scientist. This meeting with Hollister, who was a legendary scientist at Woods Hole. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:05:39] That’s correct. Yeah. I mean, the most amazing thing about it is that I still walk by that very same spot now that I’m the president and director of the same institution. And, you know, I get a certain energy from that exact same spot where I made that decision. 

Bill Loveless [00:05:54] What a wonderful story. You were at Columbia for a long time. You spent more than 30 years at the university where, among other things, you founded the Center for Climate and and and Life and served as dean of science for the Faculty of Arts and Science at Sciences. It was a very secure position, one in which you were continuing to to accomplish quite a lot. Why did you leave Columbia? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:06:16] Well, Bill, that’s an interesting question. And, you know, again, if you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said, you know, I would have died with my boots on at Lamont or at Columbia. I so loved the place. You know, I was there for 33 years. And as I tell people, I came up from the mailroom. I arrived as a graduate student. I got my Ph.D. in 1992. And in those days at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, I if you were fully funded with federal grants, you could immediately go on to the scientific staff. And that’s what I did. And I continued doing that for a number of years. And then I joined the faculty, then I became department chair. And then, as you said, I started the center and then became Dean. And, you know, just gave me an overview of the breadth of programs that were available at Columbia and just, you know, how strong the system is there for advancing climate science and. Solutions. But, you know, one thing that has always stuck with me is the desire to really make a difference in my life. You know, so the reason why I left the security of tenure was when I was approached about this position to lead the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It was a moment in time that I realized came to me so clearly it’s like, what if somebody gave you the keys to a place of a thousand of the smartest people, not only scientists, but engineers and marine operations? What if you had everything from soup to nuts to go after some of the biggest problems in the world? And it’s a very nimble institution. I’m learning. And so I had the opportunity to make the shift. And it’s it was an absolutely fantastic decision. 

Bill Loveless [00:07:57] I look forward to talking about some of the work that’s taking place there at Woods Hole and its significance these days. But first, a bit more about you. Your fieldwork as a scientist has involved deep sea sediment coring drilling deep down into the the floor of of of oceans. I recall touring the Lamont Observatory at Columbia and seeing that the archives, I guess you would call it right, of various core sediments there from from around the world. What type of research is that and why is it significant, especially today? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:08:33] Right. So I sometimes tell people my my very sophisticated job title is I’m a deep sea mud enthusiast. And but I’m a marine geologist and I use ocean sediments as a way to reconstruct past changes in Earth’s climate. And the easiest way to understand this is that, you know, the oceans cover about two thirds of the planet, and all of the oceans are overlain with blankets of sediment that have accumulate over millions, tens, even up to a hundred million years of accumulation over time. And what’s really the reason for working on deep sea sediments more than anything else as a geologist, is that they give you this complete and continuous record of past ocean and climate change going back for that period of time. So if you wanted a complete encyclopedia of Earth, climate or Earth history, you turn to the oceans and it’s they it may not sound very attractive working with deep sea mud, but it’s amazing the kinds of puzzles you can pull out of this. You can reconstruct past changes in carbon dioxide levels going back millions of years. In fact, that’s how we know today’s carbon dioxide levels haven’t been seen for millions of years. You know, you can just ask these really fundamental questions of the climate system. 

Bill Loveless [00:09:52] And, you know, you say may not sound too appealing, but you get to go to see a lot. Right. You’ve done that frequently throughout your career. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:10:01] Yeah, I’ve been on, I don’t know, something like 18 cruises. I mainly do my work on East and West Africa, studying the African, the history of African climate preserved in the ocean, sediments and and changes in vegetation and rainfall, particularly actually looking at the climate or what we call the paleo climate context of early human evolution. So it’s really this interplay between how the environment has changed and then how mammalian evolution has changed along with those changes in the environment. 

Bill Loveless [00:10:29] And I can’t help but ask you, Peter, about another Again, I’m interested mostly in the science here, but when I read about your background, some of your work over the years at sea and all I did read about the brush with pirates off Somalia. So please tell me about that, because I think that’s fascinating as well. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:10:44] Yeah. Right. So oceanography can be dangerous. And this was indeed a dangerous cruise that I lived to tell the story for an interesting reason. We were sailing on a Dutch flagship, and in fact, that’s the reason why I’m here today, I believe, from Dar es Salaam, up to eventually actually up to Port Said and Egypt traveling through the Gulf of Aden and then up the Red Sea. And this was back actually just a couple of months before 911. So we were in relative innocence of the events that would happen. But as we were sailing along the coast of Somalia, the captain said, you know, just to be cautious, we know there’s some pirate activity in this area. We’re going to turn off all the navigation lights, all the interior lights and have radio silence along the way. And, you know, it was it didn’t really it was actually kind of surreal to be kind of bouncing through the Indian Ocean in darkness. Like that’s very unusual. But then we were getting these regular updates that were coming over the fax machine now. And these days you weren’t you know, we didn’t have the regular Internet updates. We were getting fax updates. And the fax updates were Marine incidents. These were things that were happening in the area that were of interest to mariners, including pirate attacks. And so there were a number that were being reported, particularly as we were entering the Gulf of Aden. So we’d get these, I think, six hour updates. And amazingly, the, you know, these reports that come up, it’s like, okay, here’s the the coordinate for the most recent set of attacks and you’d see this kind of plotted up on on the map. And lo and behold, you know, many of these attack sites were on exactly the coordinates or near the coordinates of where we were going to get our settlement course from. You remember, this is, you know, right after the the Aden incident. And so there were all these you know, there was all this activity of pirate activity. But we would go in and and take these sediment cores. And remember, when you’re taking a sediment core, you’re lowering a wire over the ship with a very, you know, multi-ton instrument that then you’re lowering through a mile or two of water to then dig in and penetrate into the seafloor and then bring it back up to the ship. You’re on station for hours. You’re just completely bait at that point. But luckily nothing happened to us there. But, you know, I can note that actually the Columbia ship was there. No Columbia University ship was there just a month or two before I was there. And they were actually attacked with rocket propelled grenades. So we were doing our work in the Gulf of Aden for a number of weeks and then made our way into the Red Sea. And once you passed the Straits of Baba Mandeb into the into the Red Sea, it’s relatively safe because those are Saudi waters pretty it was pretty alarming. 

Bill Loveless [00:13:34] But, you know, this this whole field of of scientific ocean drilling is, as I read a little bit about it, to talk to you, it seems like it’s something that’s really emerged that much more. It’s sort of over the span of your career. Right. I saw a piece in from the American Geophysical Union saying that the past 55 years of international scientific ocean drilling collectively represent one of our nation’s most successful and impactful investments in advancing basin basic research about Earth, as well as advancing STEM education. So you’ve sort of been in it in golden days and golden days. That certainly and hopefully would continue. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:14:14] Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it’s incredibly fortunate to have benefited from not just the United States investment in basic science, in scientific ocean drilling, but really this is a you know, this is a multinational collaboration. And in fact, you know, the modern ocean drilling program is actually focusing on, you know, this collaboration across many different countries. And that’s what makes it so exciting, is that you go on a cruise and you’re with people from all around the world who bring their different perspectives. And what’s great is that you’re all there on a ship for two months at a time, working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, and everyone is just incredibly passionate about what they’re doing. But the most exciting part about it is that you’ve got this 600 foot purpose built laboratory, floating laboratory that’s totally dedicated to the problem that you’re solving at that one moment. And then, you know, when you finally core through something like one of the cruises they caught through the layer that represented the time when the dinosaurs became extinct because of an impact of a meteorite. And you can actually see the debris of the of the impact event in this deep sea sediment layer out there in the middle of the ocean. 

Bill Loveless [00:15:31] Oh, my goodness. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:15:32] So yeah, it’s yeah. And you put your finger on and you realize that’s where the dinosaurs died. You shouldn’t put your finger on it, I guess. 

Bill Loveless [00:15:40] I think you’ve just sold out many more young people to go into this line of work. Okay. You know, soon after your arrival at Woods Hole, you told a town hall meeting there that, quote, Our path to a sustainable future on this increasingly crowded planet begins with a call for a healthy, stable, protected ocean. Quote, You know, for many of us, especially those of us who live near the ocean, it’s a wonderful playground or an important means of making a living. But from a scientific perspective, our oceans all that well understood by people at large. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:16:13] You know, I would certainly say no, they aren’t. I mean, for the most part, and I fall fall into this as well. I mean, it’s very easy to be lulled by the beauty of of the ocean. And most of us only get to see it looking down upon its glimmering surface. A few of us get lucky and get to swim in it and kind of snorkel around and even fewer get to dive and still feel we get to go down and let’s say a submarine. The oceans are vastly underexplored. We know so much more about Venus and Mars and the moon than we do about our own oceans. Only about 20% of the ocean is actually mapped. Now, that’s just the sea floor, you know, mapping the kind of resolution you would for, let’s say, driving in your car and, you know, so you’re not running into a mountain. We don’t have that kind of understanding of the ocean at all. And that’s just the topography of the ocean, actually, how the ocean functions and contributes to the planet. We’re really just beginning to learn. One thing to sort of keep in mind for everyone is when everyone is talking about climate change, they’re really talking about ocean change. The oceans are really you know, the oceans are climate and climate is the oceans. Every drop of precipitant water comes from the oceans. The heat waves that we experience are rooted in the oceans. The strength of hurricanes is driven by how warm the oceans are. And that’s one of the things that most people don’t realize that, you know, the essence of living crops, water access, the security of your home, the security of of coastal urban cities. You know, all of these things are fundamentally tied to a healthy ocean and the oceans are indeed changing. 

Bill Loveless [00:17:52] You know, Woods Hole has many significant projects underway to advance our understanding of oceans and climate change. And please, you know, flag any one you think or two that do you think really stands out. If you bear with me I would just like to flag one and and I hope it’s one that you might say, but it’s one in which it Woods Hole has joined other research organizations in a venture called Ocean Visions to better understand the potential of oceans as a solution to climate change. Could you tell us about that one? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:18:22] Yeah, I’d be happy to. So one of the areas of expertise that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is this understanding of how the how the ocean biological pump works effectively. And essentially the oceans are vast and they take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere becomes dissolved just like Perrier. And the carbon that’s in the water is taken up by phytoplankton, by algae in the ocean, and that’s the base of the food chain leading all the way up to tuna and swordfish. And a small part of that carbon makes its way down to the very deep parts of the ocean, several miles deep, you know, just a fraction of a percent. That’s called the biologic pump. It’s a pump from the surface to the bottom of the ocean. So one of the ways in which the oceans do us a huge favor is that they take up about one third of every unit of carbon that we put into the atmosphere from human emissions. And so one of the things that Ocean Visions is looking into are ways in which that process can be augmented artificially or to be enhanced to stimulate a greater uptake of carbon by the ocean. And so one of the areas that we work on here at the oceanographic is, you know, many aspects of that problem, but really focusing on the motivation that before we can turn to these kinds of solutions, we really need to anchor down the science that can constrain whether it’s a good idea or not. And so really science has to get ahead of the solutions. And that’s if I had one mantra for today, it’s that is that this is a real opportunity to lead the science for solutions that we need to inform what our options are because we don’t have a lot of time. 

Bill Loveless [00:20:16] And it seems when it comes to carbon capture, so much of the discussion is land based, right? I mean, we hear a lot about carbon capture and sequestration and the potential to pump CO2 underground or to to capture it. For other uses, not so much discussion about the oceans serving that same function. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:20:35] Right. So this is another aspect that I think impresses people when I tell them at a pleasant dinner conversation is that the oceans have have 40 times more carbon in them than than the atmosphere does. That is the ocean is this massive reservoir, what we call exchangeable carbon. An easy way to think of that is, you know, if the ocean sneezes, the atmosphere gets a cold, the ocean really controls the atmospheric carbon dioxide level. That’s one of the things that we learned actually in the research that I do in looking at past climates. And so what is happening now in the ocean research domain is a real acceleration of this research to understand how the ocean takes up this carbon, where it goes in the oceans and how long it lasts there. So, for example, with this biologic pump that I was telling you about earlier, if you were to to to take a radiocarbon date of the carbon at the bottom of, let’s say, the Pacific Ocean, you’re asking a question is when is the last time that carbon was exchanged with the atmosphere last saw the atmosphere last like shook hands with the atmosphere, if you will. The answer to that question off of, let’s say, Hawaii in the bottom of the ocean in Hawaii is 2000 years. The water there has been there for 2000 years. And so if one is so able to store carbon in the deep ocean, then it can be there durably for millennia. And so that’s why it’s of interest, because the oceans are really the only. Any way that you can do this at scale and with the rapidity with the speed at which you need solutions. And as he mentioned, Bill, so many of the solutions are focusing on terrestrial phenomena. And the problem with many of these issues, for instance, afforestation growing a lot of trees. That buys you a decade or two. But then soon those trees grow old and fall over and die. And lo and behold, they turn into soil and release all that carbon back to the atmosphere. So it’s not very durable. And so the oceans have a way to buy a lot of time. But again, as I said earlier on, a key thing is, you know, the science has to really stay ahead of the solutions. 

Bill Loveless [00:22:51] Yeah. What are some of the potential pathways here that you would research for taking greater advantage of the ocean as a as a sink for carbon dioxide? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:23:07] Right. Well, the most important thing, Bill, is for us to understand how the carbon gets down there and even how to estimate it. So to give you an idea of how much we don’t know about the ocean. Scientists can’t estimate the amount of carbon passing through a level in the ocean. Let’s say it’s a half a mile deep in the oceans called the Twilight Zone. We can’t estimate that number to within 100%. We don’t know whether it’s one or whether it’s two, whether it’s two or whether it’s four. And that’s because it’s really hard to measure. The oceans are big. It’s a difficult process to measure, but it’s it’s observationally constrained. We have the skill. We can do it. It’s just understanding this at scale is what’s what’s challenging. So one of the ways in which the ocean can take up carbon, where you can stimulate what’s called primary productivity, algal growth in the surface of the ocean is by adding some kind of a nutrient to the ocean. So iron, it turns out, is a micro nutrient. You need very small amounts of iron to stimulate a lot of biologic productivity. And this is, you know, one approach that’s been tried well over a dozen times now, not at scale, but as experiments and and it works. And actually, Bill, I’ve got an interesting story, if I can continue. 

Bill Loveless [00:24:24] No, absolutely. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:24:25] Your your listeners may remember the grand fires that were in Australia between 2019 2020. And the image of the charred koala, I think is what got everyone’s attention or, you know, captured their imagination. So at that fire it was nearly 1 billion tonnes of carbon was released to the atmosphere during those fires. I mean, there were just massive fires and you remember those plumes of smoke going up? All those plumes of smoke were then carried by the winds over the oceans, over the South Pacific oceans, where there’s no land. And those smoke clouds were carried over the oceans and then they dust the particles and the smoke rained out because that’s what happens. It forms clouds and rains it out. And that’s a nutrient smoke as a nutrients filter, sugars and iron and other things. And it turns out there was a study just published about six months ago. It turns out that the ocean took up nearly all of the carbon that was released during those forest fires. So it just shows the capacity of the ocean to take up carbon at scale, because we’re talking about gigatons, we’re talking about billions of tonnes of carbon that we have to mitigate. 

Bill Loveless [00:25:32] Yeah, Could you bury it under under a seafloor, bury the carbon dioxide under a seafloor? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:25:38] So that’s, you know, one class of experiments is, is to consider that. Again, I’m not advocating for any particular solution at all. It’s really the need to understand if one was to do this, what impact does it have on ocean health? And if it turns out it’s a bad idea, we need to know now. And that’s my concern, is that if you just do the math at 10 to $100 a tonne times billions of tonne of carbon that’s going into the atmosphere from emissions, we’re talking about $1,000,000,000,000 per year economy. This is going to be like a Wild West. It’s going to be a gold rush for the oceans. And that’s, you know, that’s what I’m most fearful about. In fact, one of the things I’m most wanting to accelerate our research on so that we can get there first and understand, is this a smart thing to do or not? 

Bill Loveless [00:26:25] Right. And without damage, significant damage to the oceans. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:26:28] Exactly right. 

Bill Loveless [00:26:30] You know, another research project I’ve seen involving Woods Hole is the so-called Argo project involving the placement of floats across the Atlantic Ocean to collect data to support ocean weather and climate research and prediction. And I read an article recently in which the French sailing vessel Iris arrived at Woods Hole after deploy deploying some Argo floats across the Atlantic Ocean. What’s the purpose of this project? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:26:58] Yes, so the the Argo program is absolutely one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve seen deployed at scale by oceanographers. The key problem is that if you want to understand how the oceans are changing. In my day when my young in my in my teens, when I was an aspiring oceanographer, you would go out on a ship, make a few measurements, come back home and plot them up, and you’d realize the vastness of the ocean and how difficult it is to get any kind of a single temperature for the ocean, because you’re going out there so infrequently and going to such few places. The solution was to develop an armada of autonomous floats in the ocean that basically pogo stick up and down from the surface of the ocean down to a depth of a little over a mile. And as they ascend and descend through the water column, they have a little bladder inside that they can inflate and deflate to adjust their buoyancy. They make measurements of temperature and salinity and nutrients and oxygen. And now the newer ones measure H and carbon. And essentially these these autonomous robots, when they surface, they phone home, they have a little iridium phone on them and they will call up and say, Here’s my data, I’m going to dump it, and here’s where I was and I’m going to go back down. And it just does this for a year after year after year. As a result, we’ve got over 4000 of these around all the world’s oceans, and they’re all just passively, you know, swirling around in the oceans. But they give us this what we call a four dimensional picture of the ocean. That is how the ocean temperature and salinity and other properties are changing over space and over time. And so you may have heard that in excess of 90% of the warming that’s due to carbon dioxide has actually gone into the oceans. And the reason we know this is that we can actually detect the warming throughout the upper reaches of the ocean all the way down, in some cases to the bottom, to the seafloor and miles below the depths. And so, you know, the amount of warming in the ocean in terms of temperatures less, but because the heat capacity of water is so high, you know, there’s so much heat that’s stored in the ocean. 

Bill Loveless [00:29:07] Well, those are just two two projects that came to mind for me. I’m sure there’s any number of that that you could tick off. Any other any other one that I’m missing here that. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:29:16] Oh, my gosh. Yeah, there are a couple. There are a couple that are really interesting. One is actually our our largest program, which is called the Ocean Observatories Initiative. And this is a network of global observation stations around the planet, some of which are actually connected by fiber optics. And so we get real time video even from the bottom of the ocean. But these initiatives are rather these observatories are basically these these Ocean Sentinel sites. These are places that are really monitoring fundamental properties of the ocean as if you had a permanent ship there measuring all the time. For instance, some of your your listeners may have heard of the ocean overturning circulation or the conveyor belt circulation. This is this flow where the Gulf Stream is at the surface of the ocean. It goes up more towards Iceland, where it cools cold, salty waters dense, so it sinks and it forms like a conveyor belt sinks to the bottom of the ocean miles below. And then it actually returns back south to Antarctica and it forms this big conveyor belt. Well, one of the things that we know from the geologic past, again, work that I and my colleagues have done is that that conveyor belt can shut down. And when it does, it causes just tremendous global climatic havoc. And so research now with some of these observatories is monitoring that process very, very carefully in the same way that you want to have weather stations around the planet informing weather patterns. We want to have those same kind of eyes on the ocean. Remember, you know, the ocean is dark and deep and vast. And so this is a way to kind of turn on the lights, if you will, on the bottom of the ocean. 

Bill Loveless [00:30:59] Well, speaking of that Gulfstream, there was pretty frightening reports recently about that research by a fellow named Nicholas Boers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany that warns that the Gulfstream is in danger of shutting down with devastating results. What is that study? What is that study telling us? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:31:24] That’s that’s one study that caps off dozens upon dozens of other studies. I mean, you know, everyone, you can go to sleep. You know, the Gulfstream is not shutting down. So the the Gulfstream itself. So the surface part of the ocean that’s sort of swirling. The part that you would swim in, that’s going to continue to swirl regardless of any of the changes that are ongoing. What we’re talking about is this conveyor belt. It’s the one that goes from the surface and then goes down to the bottom of the ocean and back. Recent measurements not only of the conveyor belt, but really some of the other indications think of it like vital signs. There are vital signs of a human. You don’t just take your pulse, right? You take your temperature, monitor your oxygen levels in your blood. I look at the vital signs of you and. Say you’re healthy or you’re not. Well, some of the vital signs of this overturning circulation are flashing kind of yellow, indicating that they’re changing in a direction that’s consistent with the conveyor belt shutting down. It’s a it’s a fairly slow process. It could be drawn out over decades or it could happen actually quite rapidly. But I think the most important thing for anyone to take away from this is that we’re messing with this. Right? This is what my my friend and departed colleague Wally Broecker said. We are, you know, poking an angry beast with sticks. This is the angriest beast on the planet, bigger than anything else on the planet. It is the you know, it is the biggest gorilla in the room. And the reason why it’s slowing down is because the polar oceans are warming. They’re becoming fresher because the glaciers are melting and pushing that water onto the surface of the ocean. Warm, salty, warm, fresh water is less dense than cold, salty water. So that’s what shuts down this this conveyor belt. And so it all makes sense from basic physics and the fact that it’s manifesting now. Again, I have to, you know, issue a word of caution in the sense that our direct observations of the thermal handling circulation, like where we have current meters in the bottom of the ocean, those are not showing a slowdown, but they’re only, you know, a couple of decades long. 

Bill Loveless [00:33:42] Yeah. And you say there’ll be some of these things are being manifested and some of them are obvious to us. We see the impacts, you know, on the along the ocean. For those of us sort of close by or simply see it in the news or whatever, the the harsher the more intense storms that take place in the U.S. and other countries, the rising waters, the migration of sea life, lobsters, for example. And in the northeast. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:34:12] Yeah, they’re on a spread bill. They are they’re moving like two, 2 to 4 miles a year northward. They’re quickly becoming Canadian. 

Bill Loveless [00:34:21] Yeah, it’s good for Canada. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:34:23] Yeah, for Canada. 

Bill Loveless [00:34:26] Yeah. How does the work that you and your peers in ocean Science contribute to to public policy? You know, is this science receiving sufficient support among governments, policymakers in countries like the United States? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:34:38] Right. So, I mean, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic, we are I mean, it’s a pretty big operation. It’s about $260 million a year. And our scientists are almost entirely funded through federal grants. And, you know, federal funding for climate and ocean research has been, unfortunately, on the decline for now a couple of decades. And so, you know, much of the science that we’re trying to do now is really trying to accelerate our understanding of policy relevant information. So just how we talked about the conveyor belt or the conveyor belt, you know, sounds like it’s in the middle of the ocean. How can it possibly influence me? I mean, this is a fact. If if the conveyor belt shut down, where we grow food, where we get our water, all that would be thrown into disarray and serious uncertainty. And, you know, if people don’t like one single thing, it’s uncertainty. And so, you know, one of the things that we can do in ocean science by investing in this kind of research is really to say, what are the really big questions that we can answer in really in the shortest amount of time, really like a moonshot or an A or an ocean shot is actually what they’ve been called. How can we drive this new information that can then help us make really wise, rational, science informed decisions on these really big policy relevant questions? 

Bill Loveless [00:36:01] Did you really talk in what you are talking communication? How well or not so well is ocean science being communicated to the public? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:36:09] Yeah, that’s true. I mean, it’s I mean, communications is as a big part of our effort here now at the oceanographic we have an amazing team on Ocean Communications. In fact, it’s one of the things that we’re investing in here. It was started before I came, but I’m really doubling down on it, in part because the oceans are just so fascinating. I mean, just was it just last week a whole new reef system was discovered off of Tahiti that occupies a depth of about 100 to 200 feet, so deeper than most reefs. And that’s why it hadn’t been discovered. And it turns out this is this enormous, healthy reef that’s there. And it just brings such hope. And the fact that we discovered this thing to a week ago is just mind blowing. That should not be the case. We should really have a full inventory of what we know about the oceans and how much the oceans sustain us. I mean, one thing that always impressed me is, you know, every other breath of oxygen we breathe as humans comes from the oceans. 

Bill Loveless [00:37:12] You know, you mentioned the funding is has declined in recent years in the United States. I take it you’re saying. I mean, has there been much attention to that much consideration given to that by the, say, the Biden administration or members of Congress? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:37:25] Right. So, I mean, where we are really, I think making a lot of progress is creating the the use case, the knowledge case for pursuing this in the first place. And so, you know, I think certainly with current direction at the National Science Foundation, there’s a real focus on this intertwining between basic fundamental knowledge and what’s called use inspired knowledge. And the way the current director of NSF describes it. It’s like this interwoven helix of relationship between pure and applied science, if you will. And it’s this marriage of these two parts of the equation that are going to lead us to the direction that we need to to get answers. And this is indeed the trajectory we’re taking here at the oceanographic. You know, we’re excellent at basic or pure science, if you will, theoretical science as well. But we’re also really good at the applied stuff as well. And so the ability to kind of put those together and then direct them toward really big existential questions like how rapidly will sea level rise in my zipcode? That’s a question we’re going to answer. How you know, how are those the health of the ocean changing that? That’s a question we’re going to answer. One of the ones we’re focusing on right now is actually a project they really haven’t told you much about, which is called the Ocean Vital Signs Project. And this is designed to build a large ocean data cube, if you will, of criss crossing robots and moorings and gliders and vehicles packed with sensors basically to inform how the oceans are changing at a scale that the ocean operates. So something roughly twice the size of Texas. So imagine if you could have almost like a weather map of the oceans and how the oceans are changing at the scale at which we, you know, we know them to be. It gives you all of a sudden this knowledge base that lets you ask these questions like, is ocean health changing? Is the ocean’s ability to take up carbon changing, Our fisheries is changing. These are all, you know, big first order questions that relate to, you know, the security of our food and water, shelter, energy. So even if you live in Iowa, this is really relevant to you. 

Bill Loveless [00:39:45] Yeah, but I’m not sure that kind of conversation takes place all that often in Washington, let’s say, in the hearings that take place on Capitol Hill and other in other deliberations. Are the conversations there? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:39:57] Well, I think that’s true. I mean, you know, when you go back to COP26, I mean, the oceans were curiously absent from much of the discussion there. And in fact, that’s one of the areas where I’m paying a lot of attention, both personally and as a representative of the institution. As you know, it’s very important that we be spokespeople for the oceans because they are changing, they are in trouble, and our existence is fundamentally tied to their health. And so the more that we can convey that truth with more truth, with with knowledge, but the more also that we can help to shape some of the actionable solutions, then that provides a way to, you know, think about your future in a very different way. So rather than being fear based, it actually engages your ability to solve a problem. And that’s what we all need right now. 

Bill Loveless [00:40:49] All right. Well, before we go, I just want to ask you sort of, you know, your own personal outlook, just given your career. Sometimes I think that with all the news we bad news we hear these days, right, about, you know, political division in the country and COVID and all these sorts of things that, you know, the loss of of a glacier and an ice shelf on somewhere far off might not seem to be big news. And I think that’s worrisome. I mean, how much of a concern is it to you? And when you go about your work, do you nevertheless go about it with a lot of hope? 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:41:27] Well, I certainly do. I mean, first of all, everyone loves the oceans now. And I think, you know, although the country may be divided on some issues, you know, the oceans continue to inspire. And, you know, it really generates tremendous interest. And there’s so much to discover. And, you know, so we’re actually in what is called the U.N. Ocean Decade for Ocean Science for sustainable development. This is from 2021 to 2030, a whole decade of global accelerated effort to understand the oceans better just for this reason. So I have tremendous hope. In fact, Bill, I was just on a call today with an international group from the U.N. talking about these very same issues. And there I am on this Zoom call. But I’m talking with people from Ghana and from France and from England and from Japan and China and the US and just all around the world. And we’re all there to represent the oceans and to really advance this work. And so I actually it gives me tremendous hope, in part because there is so much to discover. And discovery is, you know, fundamentally thriving. And the other element to it, I think that’s so exciting about it is that the ocean is really the key to the solutions that we need when we think about some of the problems that we have to solve. The only way you can approach them at the scale and the speed with which we need the answers is to better understand the ocean’s role in mitigating these issues. 

Bill Loveless [00:42:58] Well, Peter, I’m going to leave this conversation and go take a. As I mentioned, I’m just a stone’s throw from the ocean right now from Narragansett Bay. I’m going to leave us here in a minute and go take a walk with my dog along that ocean and appreciate not only its great beauty, but also all the potential it holds for solving some of our challenges and climate change in the in the time ahead of us here. Thank you very much for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange. 

Peter B. de Menocal [00:43:25] Bill, thank you so much for having me. 

Bill Loveless [00:43:30] Thank you again, Peter Domenico, and thank you for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by Jason Bordoff and me Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Stephen Lacy, Jamie Kiser and Alexandria Herr from Post-Script Audio. Additional support from Tori Lovell, Kirstin Smith, Daniel Prop, Natalie Volk and Kyu Lee. Sean Marquand is our sound engineer. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy dot Columbia dot edu or follow us on social media at Columbia View Energy. And if you can, please give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts. It helps the show reach more listeners like yourself. We’ll see you next week. 

So much about the ocean is still unknown to science, even though the ocean covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface.

Oceans act as a buffer against unimaginable warming, because scientists say that about 90 percent of the warming that has happened on Earth over the past 50 years has been absorbed by the oceans. But elevated ocean temperatures have also meant rising seas, coral bleaching events, and more intense hurricanes — just to name a few impacts.

That said, ocean science has increasingly contributed significantly to addressing climate change and informing public policy.

And there’s that much more that can be done.

This week, we have host Bill Loveless’ conversation with Peter De Menocal from February this year. Peter is a marine geologist and paleo-climatologist and the President & Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Bill and Peter discussed how oceans are changing, the capacity of oceans to take up carbon and the need for policy-relevant research on the seas. They also talked about what led Peter to a career studying and exploring oceans.

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