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My students’ call to what they think is the most pressing issue for the oceans

For extra credit, I asked my students to write a short post about what they thought the most pressing issue was facing our oceans. Here is what they have to say:

Ocean Acidification Impacting Our Oceans
by Sarah Kerner, Environmental Science Major

The most pressing environmental issue affecting our ocean, in my opinion, is the climate change induced ocean acidification. Ocean acidification happens when the atmosphere has an overload of carbon dioxide, and it diffuses into the ocean because it is a main carbon sink. The increased carbon dioxide leads to a decrease in the availability of the carbonate ions. The high parts per million of carbon dioxide causes the atmosphere to become warmer because it traps heat inside the lower atmosphere of the Earth. This starts the greenhouse effect. It’s important to understand this process because it kickstarts the increasing acidity of oceans, the lowering in the pH. The output of carbon dioxide has an increasing trend, but when you look closer, it fluctuates going up and down. This is due to the plants taking up excess carbon dioxide in the spring and summer through the process of photosynthesis. The graph that represents this is called the Keeling Curve. The term, ocean acidification, was first coined in 2003 when people realized that the ocean has become rapidly more acidic. The ocean has become 30 percent more acidic in the last 200 years, which is the fastest known change in the past 50 million years (Bennett 2019).

This is a pressing matter because the warming of the ocean and the increasing acidity destroys the integrity of marine organisms such as coral, clams, mussels, zooplankton, sea stars, and sea urchins. Also, the chemical reactions that take place in fishes’ bodies can be altered by the lower pH ocean water. There is a tolerance range that plants and animals can live in, but when their limits are pushed, it is harmful for the species. They will either adapt, which will be over a long period of time, or die. The coral and other organisms that build calcium carbonate shells have thinner, weaker shells in acidic water; the lack of carbonate ion concentrations reduce the rate of calcification. The dissolution of their shells act as a buffer and tries to make the pH of the ocean more basic for the organisms that live in it.

What can we do to help reduce the acidity in the ocean? The best thing we all can do is to limit and reduce our carbon footprint on the Earth. Ways to do this are by turning off lights that are not in use (or just use natural light by opening the window blinds), turning off the water when not in use, buying from local markets, biking instead of driving when possible, and minimizing online orders that ship from far away. Greener, renewable energy such as wind power, hydropower, and solar power are great for reducing the carbon dioxide produced when burning the oil, coal, and gases of fossil fuel nonrenewable resources. Single use plastic bags and products are terrible for the environment, use reusable anything: grocery bags, sponges, paper towels, cotton rounds, and things like bamboo/metal straws instead of plastic straws. We can make the Earth’s oceans healthier when we work together.

Works Cited:
Bennett J, Ocean Portal Team. Ocean Acidification. Smithsonian Ocean. 2019 Jun 20 [accessed 2020 Apr 4]. https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/ocean-acidification

 

El Nino-Southern Oscillation Events and Their Effects
by Emily Badal, Environmental Science Major

The El Nino-Southern Oscillation cycle is a pressing issue that is directly related to the oceans, and capable of disruption on a global scale. ENSO is a series of events that fluctuate through different phases within the cycle, the extreme phases being El Nino and La Nina. ENSO weather events interfere with the normal functioning of the Walker Circulation. The Walker circulation consists of trade winds blowing east to west, thus resulting in a pile-up of warm water and higher sea level in the western Pacific. As the winds are blowing towards the west, this is causing upwelling in the east, where cool, nutrient-rich water is brought to the surface. The air in the west rises from the warm water and descends back in the eastern Pacific. There is a distinct temperature difference between warm water and a deeper thermocline in the west, and cool water in the east. We see both oceanic and atmospheric components involved in this loop. When an ENSO event such as El Nino occurs, warming takes place. The trade winds weaken, allowing warm water to flow back towards the east. The thermocline is flattened out and upwelling is slowed, so there is no nutrient-rich water at the surface. The now-warmed eastern Pacific is capable of giving off heat, thus adding to global climate change. La Nina causes unusually cool conditions in the eastern Pacific to occur, due to the intensification of the Walker Circulation. The winds blow harder from east to west, causing a much larger western pile-up of warm water, and more upwelling to occur in the eastern Pacific. The temperature difference from east to west is greater, with a more dramatic thermocline. The larger pile-up of warm water results in a higher evaporation rate, increasing flood rates. La Nina typically occurs after an El Nino event, possibly as an attempt to over-correct the disruption that was done by El Nino.

The significance of these events is high due to the climate impact on a global scale. Weather patterns are disrupted resulting in intense storms and droughts in various places in the world, depending on the event. Economic impacts occur in areas such as South American, where fisheries cannot thrive without the upwelling of nutrient-rich water. Chlorophyll concentrations are increased with upwelling, providing food to many marine species. This depletes the food web on a base level, effecting marine life from the bottom up. Changes to normal surface level temperature undoubtedly has power over the ability for marine life to continue functioning in that area.

The correlation between increased greenhouse gasses and ENSO events is unclear. We do know that the ocean acts as a sink for fossil fuels, holding 55% of the world’s CO2. The reaction that takes place between CO2 and H2O ultimately results in an increased presence of hydrogen ions that decrease the pH. The rising temperature leads to the melting of glaciers, causing an influx of cold freshwater. Both of those events decrease the salinity of the ocean, not allowing the cool water to sink and drive the Meridional Overturning Circulation. This is not directly correlated to ENSO events; however, it serves as an example of how climate change is affecting ocean circulation currently. Recent studies done on oxygen isotopes using fossil coral samples and modern coral samples displayed evidence that ENSO cycles have increased by 25% compared to such events that took place in the preindustrial period (Grothe et al., 2019), so there is reason to believe that they will be impacted.

El Nino/La Nina events cannot be stopped or controlled; however, we can improve our understanding of how and when they occur to provide ample preparation time to those who will be affected by the following droughts and flooding. Research is critical at this time to understand the affect anthropogenic production of fossil fuels is having on the intensity and regularity of these powerful events.

Works Cited
Shein. “El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Technical Discussion.” National Climatic Data Center, www.ncdc.noaa.gov/teleconnections/enso/enso-tech.php.

“Coral Reconstructions of Central Tropical Pacific Climate Suggest a 25% Increase in Recent El Niño Southern Oscillation Intensity: US CLIVAR.” Coral Reconstructions of Central Tropical Pacific Climate Suggest a 25% Increase in Recent El Niño Southern Oscillation Intensity | US CLIVAR, 22 Jan. 2020, usclivar.org/research-highlights/coral-reconstructions-central-tropical-pacific-climate-suggest-25-increase.

US Department of Commerce, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Are El Nino and La Nina?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 26 Mar. 2009, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ninonina.html.

 

Ocean Pollution and Climate Change
by Catherine Haines, Historic Preservation Major

I chose this topic because I grew up in an area that is very dependent on waterways. I was born and raised in Ocean View (Norfolk), Virginia and have traveled to multiple places along the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways throughout the United States and Europe allowing me to see firsthand how these communities have affected the Bay and the ocean. Ocean pollution is a serious problem and that has caused many problems including negative impacts to marine life and the climate.

Starting with the Chesapeake Bay, the marine animals who inhabit this water have been overfished due to pleasure (those who love to fish) and because people need jobs as fishermen. However, in 1607 when the English landed at Jamestown, they wrote of how large and plentiful the shellfish and other fish were. In the last few centuries, the water has become polluted, as well as overfished, causing an imbalance of nutrients in the water leading to destruction of marine life. Oysters, for example, have been overfished due to their value for fisheries. However, their ability to filter algae and sediment are very important to the Bay and without them there is an unhealthy rise in these pollutants. Oysters also provide habitats for other marine animals that live in the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has had restorations in effect for as long as I can remember. Simply visiting the Virginia Zoo, signs can be easily found that teach the visitors about the restoration projects and how they too can help rebuild the oyster population.

There have been big movements that try to spread information of how plastic harms animals in oceans and on land. The discarded plastic in mistaken for food and animals end up sick and/or dying because they consume it. Additionally, no one likes to swim or relax on beaches that are covered in trash everywhere you look. Most people think pollution controls will hurt an area because tourism brings in revenue, but many of those same people do not realize the negative impact on the environment. Lastly, human impact on oceans has caused rising temperatures in the ocean waters that has increased the deaths of corals that can be found throughout the world. These once vibrant, beautiful creatures have turned white because they are dying at the hands of humans all around the world. During the current pandemic and the resulting quarantine people have seen the evidence of the reduced pollution from the multitude of shared photos from various regions of the world. The photos of Venice, Italy following weeks of reduced pollution have had a profound impact on me personally. During my own travels in April 2017, Venice was breathtaking despite the pollution and now three years later I am amazed to see even more astonishing views and to learn there are even fish living in the canal waters that once were so polluted that they looked more like canals of mud than water.

 

Overfishing
by Aaron Bensink, Economics Major

When high numbers of fish are fished at a rate higher than their reproduction, overfishing is in effect. This essay seeks to look into the causes and effects of overfishing. Nature has a unique way of controlling the number of animals from different species, which ensures that it is very diverse; for example, various fish species are predators of others. As such, overfishing would decrease the number of specific fish species, leaving other at high numbers. This imbalance in the aquatic life and may lead to the extinction of certain fish species, which adversely affects the aquatic life. In a bid to ensure that our natural environment is rich, authorities should impose ban to certain regions so that there is a balance in the marine life. This could help a great deal in restoring aquatic balance in areas where it has been interrupted.

The world’s population has been on the increase, which has necessitated the increase of the amount of food, and other resources required in order to support human life. Due to the increase in population, which translates to higher demand, there has been the need to increase the supply of fish. Therefore, the increased fish demand is satisfied through natural fishing or fish farming. In the case of fish farming, overfishing is not common with the farmers using certified nets while fishing; thus, ensuring that the fingerings are left in the ponds or dams. On the other hand, overfishing is rampant in wildlife fishing, where personal discipline in adhering to the guidelines set to avoid overfishing is low. Wildlife overfishing has led to decline in the number of fish in the wildlife, thus having a negative effect on the diversity and richness of our environment.

When overfishing is carried out, authorities in charge usually impose ban to fishing for certain periods to ensure that the fish breeds to the normal population. These bans make fishermen jobless, thus, affecting their living standards and of those who depend on them. This may accelerate the poverty levels, which is not good for economic development of regions dependent on fishing. Overfishing is very rampant in various regions of the world. Overfishing has economic benefits such as increased revenue to the industry, and also negative impacts on our environment. As such, it is necessary to control the negative effects and maintain a natural balance in aquatic life. Yes, I did say it had benefits, but I do not condone the activity of overfishing. I believe everyone needs to spread awareness by speaking up and boycotting these companies that overfish, mainly “OMEGA”.

 

More Plastic Than Fish
by Rachel  Voketaitis, Business Administration Major

If we “love” the ocean and if it is so important to our daily lives why do we literally treat it like garbage? The ocean is thought to be Earth’s life line, with 97% of the world’s water held by the ocean. We rely on it to “regulate our climate, absorb CO2 and it is the number one source for protein for over a billion people.” With all that being said, the damage we are doing to the ocean is becoming unrepairable.

From a very young age in school we learn that littering is bad. We learn about the dangers and consequences of not being responsible with our planet. So where is the disconnect? I have to believe that the main issue is that people don’t start to care until it affects them personally.

Specifically in this class, we have learned that pollution is the introduction by humans, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the environment. This can lead to harm in human health, living organisms and ecosystems, as well as marine activities like recreation and fishing.

For a visual, we dump 8 million metric tons into the oceans each year. “That’s about 17.6 billion pounds — or the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales — every single year. By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.”

If we don’t as world create a solution that opens eyes and makes people care, the problem will spiral downward to the point where it is too late. After taking Oceanography, my eyes have been opened to the mass mounts of pollution entering the environment and for example, I personally don’t go anywhere without my hydro flask. I used to constantly use plastic water bottles and I think baby steps like this, if done in mass amounts, can go a long way.

Works Cited
“100 Plastic in the Ocean Statistics & Facts (2020).” Condor Ferries,
www.condorferries.co.uk/plastic-in-the-ocean-statistics.

“Ocean Pollution: 11 Facts You Need to Know.” Ocean Pollution – 11 Facts You Need to Know,
www.conservation.org/stories/ocean-pollution-11-facts-you-need-to-know.

 

Ocean Acidification
by Cosima Pellis, Sociology Major

I think that the most pressing environmental issue affecting our oceans, along with ocean warming, is ocean acidification due to carbon emissions. Up to one third of the total carbon emissions worldwide are absorbed by the oceans, which is a staggering amount. While this may lower temperatures for humans and keep us more comfortable, the ocean becomes much more acidic as a result, especially at the surface. The introduction of more carbon depletes calcium carbonate which many organisms use to build their skeletons and shells. Some of these creatures are plankton, and, importantly, corals. It is natural for the ocean to absorb some amount of carbon, but the problem arises when carbon is introduced in such high quantities that marine life is struggling because of it. 

Where is this carbon coming from? The majority of carbon dioxide emissions originate with humans burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil, especially coal. These fossil fuels are emitted through electricity and heat, and transportation. Clearing forests and industrial activities also account for some of these carbon emissions. There are also natural processes that contribute, such as ocean-atmosphere exchange, plant and animal respiration, soil respiration and decomposition, and volcanic eruptions. However, the problem lies in the massive levels of anthropogenic emissions. 

The statistics and rates when it comes to ocean acidification are shocking and horrific. “Oceanic acidity has increased by 25% since the industrial revolution, and will eventually destroy much marine life if it increases at this rate” (“World Oceans Day,” 5). This is a huge problem because at some point, if emissions continue as they currently are, entire species will be wiped out from the oceans. Corals and other organisms who need calcium carbonate will be hit hard, as well as the fish and other sea life that depend on these corals and shellfish. 

To be more specific, according to NOAA, “Estimates of future carbon dioxide levels, based on business as usual emission scenarios, indicate that by the end of this century the surface waters of the ocean could have acidity levels nearly 150 percent higher, resulting in a pH that the oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years” (“What is Ocean Acidification, 1). This is an incredibly steep increase and will affect so many species, “including oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton” (What is Ocean Acidification, 1). We should care deeply about our negative effect on the ocean purely because of this, but the impacts of rapidly increasing carbon levels don’t stop at sea creatures. This will have a large impact on humans as well, as over a billion people throughout the world depend on seafood for protein, so food sources and jobs will both be affected and already are affected by ocean acidification. 

There are so many ways that each of us can reduce our carbon footprint and help decrease carbon emissions. When it comes to food, we can shop local, compost, and try to eat lower on the food chain, as the meat industry is a huge culprit of releasing carbon emissions. We can stop buying fast fashion, or super cheap clothing that is thrown away quickly and is manufactured in factories with unsustainable practices; rather, we can wear what we already have more and buy vintage clothing. Also, we can be more conscientious about the energy we use in our homes, drive less, and take steps to increase the fuel efficiency in our cars. An accumulation of small changes and small steps, when many people around the world make adjustments, can start to slowly decrease carbon emissions and keep the rate of ocean acidification from increasing so rapidly. 

Sources:
http://www.worldoceansday.ca/education-resources/top-11-issues-affecting-oceans

https://whatsyourimpact.org/greenhouse-gases/carbon-dioxide-emissions

https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F

https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/12/27/35-ways-reduce-carbon-footprint/

Big Corporations and Marine Pollution
by Kassie Bender, Theater and Dance major

When it comes to humans’ effect on the oceans, very rarely are the contributions positive. Trash pollution is one of the biggest detriments to marine life. It causes some wildlife to get caught and suffocated by it, death by consumption, and the overall destruction of many ecosystems due to the presence of foreign objects compiling in the water. Many arguments to save the environment include efforts to use alternative items such as reusable straws or biodegradable toothbrushes to reduce waste. In no way do I believe that reusable items are a bad thing. I think that by everyone working together to do away with one-use items, it not only will reduce the amount of waste we produce, but also lessen our carbon emission by lessening the need for the infinite manufacturing of items.

Out of the 19 billion pounds of garbage that end up in the ocean each year, the amount added by the average consumer is nothing compared to large corporations. While we should all continue to do our part in helping the planet, I believe that these big companies that are top-polluters need to be held responsible to do their part as well. According to TheStreet, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle are responsible for 14% of the world’s plastic pollution. By those statistics, that means those three companies alone are responsible for 2,660,000,000 pounds of trash per year.

All of the other companies turning towards reusable or eco-friendly options are secondary. The only way to substantially reduce the destruction of our planet and our oceans is for the big-name companies to change. While companies such as Coca-Cola are never going to stop selling single-use products, what they package and sell their products in can be altered. To start, an alternative to plastic bottles is a necessity. They can take notes from some water companies that are ditching their plastic bottles for paper bottles or even aluminum cans. While you may think aluminum cans are just as bad for the environment, Sciencing explains how they’re actually much easier to recycle. Once the can has been produced, it can be infinitely recycled, unlike plastic which requires petroleum to be re-processed. Another benefit to cans is that they are five times more likely to be recycled than plastic bottles.

The other change that needs to be implemented is cutting out the plastic ring-packaging. While using these may save some paper, it’s items like these that have a habit of strangling wildlife when they get into the oceans. If they want to keep the minimalist packaging, biodegradable twine may be a good alternative.

There are a million ways that people can help prolong the life of our planet. Even the smallest of changes like having reusable plates and utensils at restaurants make a big difference when put on a bigger scale. However, none of our efforts will make a difference unless the production of “trash” gets drastically reduced. As long as it’s being produced at its current rate, it will continue to litter and flood our oceans faster than we can clean and help them. 

Works Cited

Dorger, Samanda. “The Companies Whose Products Result in the Most Plastic Trash.” TheStreet, 12 Feb. 2019, www.thestreet.com/personal-finance/companies-produce-most-plastic-pollution-14860441.

Thibodeaux, Wanda. “Plastic Bottle Vs. Aluminum Can.” Sciencing, 26 Sept. 2017, sciencing.com/plastic-bottle-vs-aluminum-can-13636298.html.

Grothe, Pamela. “Marine Pollution.” Powerpoint, 2020.

What is the most pressing environmental issue affecting our oceans?
by Callie Cutrell, Environmental Science Major

If you asked me this question before the start of this semester I would say pollution, both physical forms of trash and chemical pollution. Now I believe the most pressing environmental issue affecting our oceans would be the increasing temperature of our oceans. Global warming is causing ocean temperatures to rise because one of the most important things about the ocean that people often forget is that the ocean absorbs most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas. The rise in atmospheric temperatures is caused by the increasing carbon dioxide levels that are emitted by humans. Carbon dioxide controls the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere because carbon dioxide molecules in the air absorb infrared radiation from the sun. When water temperatures start to change rapidly it causes coral bleaching, fish to die or move elsewhere, algae and other plants to die. The increase in ocean temperatures is also causing water levels to rise because on land glaciers and ice shelves are beginning to melt and runoff into the ocean. Sea ice is an essential habit for species in the Antarctic, such as krill, a critical food source for seabirds and other larger species. Rising sea levels are a huge threat to smaller islands because over time these islands can be completely covered by water. Coastal zones of the most important aquatic ecosystem would start to be affected due to flooding because of higher tides. Another problem caused my rise in water temperatures is ocean acidification caused by acid rain. Like I said before the ocean is responsible for absorbing greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide as the ocean takes in carbon dioxide and causes pH level in the water to drop. When water vapor is evaporated the carbon dioxide is left behind in water or comes back in the form of acidic precipitation. As the oceans acidify it causes many ocean species that use calcium carbonate to form their skeletons and shells. This would mean coastal reefs which are home to large ecosystems of species.

How do we fix this ? I believe the best way to start helping the ocean is to make some serious changes on land. The reason the ocean temperatures are increasing is because atmospheric temperatures are higher and why is atmospheric higher it’s because of what humans are doing on land. First we need to grip on the levels of carbon dioxide we emit into the air. We can start by replanting forests, decreasing the need to burn fossil fuels, can change our main energy source to solar, and possibly even switch to electric powered vehicles. We cannot save the ocean if we do not help land first.

Categories
personal

My (very personal) experience during the Covid-19 pandemic…

and how it made me rethink climate communication

mom comic pandemic
Comic, written by moms Lulu McManus and illustrated by Ellie
Zitsman (source: https://www.workingmother.com/comic-sums-up-being-mom-in-covid-era-momics)

We are on our final week of classes before exams (thank goodness), and I am finally able to sit down, breathe, and write my first blog post. Why do I have time write now? Frankly, only because my students are busy writing final papers in my classes, so I am currently in a holding pattern until they turn them in. Also, we just let the grandparents “back in” to help out some. Why? Because they have been social distancing, the virus is not going away anytime soon, and I could not see holding my children hostage from them until it did. But it was a mutual decision, it had to be.

Denial

But let’s back up because over the last month there have been a whirlwind of events. I do not even remember when I first learned about the Covid-19 disease spreading rapidly from Wuhan, China. I did not tune into it until the news stories came out about Italy shutting down as the disease ripped through their communities. As our Spring Break began on March 2nd, the cases in the U.S. started trickling in but nothing in our area. My husband even warned me that things were going to get bad, that everything was going to shut down. He had the foresight, something that I regrettably did not, even with my scientific training. I was in denial. I went about my Spring Break as if nothing was wrong in the world. We celebrated my son’s first birthday. We had family and friends over for a BBQ, we took him to the trampoline park, we took both of the boys to gymnastics, and we even ended the weekend at the Children’s Museum, a breeding ground for every little germ there is.

Even as I started back at school, I was in denial. It did not help that we received an email welcoming us back from Spring Break from our Provost stating “Although current conditions do not indicate a need to alter the regular program of instruction…”. Yes, that sentence ended with be prepared just in case, but I think my eyes skimmed over that part after reading the first part of the sentence. Thus, I only casually spoke about it with my students on that Monday and Tuesday, not realizing that it would be the last time I would see them in class. Then on Wednesday, as I sat in lab with my upper level Sedimentation and Stratigraphy students, the news came in that Universities around Virginia were going on-line – some for a few weeks, some for the remainder of the semester. It was not long after that that UMW followed suit.

Transitioning my classes to on-line

The University canceled classes that Thursday and Friday to allow faculty time to transition their classes on-line. Two days. That was it. Did we do it? Yes! But it takes an entire year to train and plan for teaching an on-line course. Was it pretty? No. I felt (and still do) like I was operating in survival mode. I decided to not teach synchronously, mostly, because the disparities in students’ access to reliable technologies. I have a student who went home to Nigeria and has to deal with constant power outages (and time change). I have another student who lives in a remote location where the only internet she can get is off her phone outside of her house. Another student is sharing one laptop with three other housemates. Other students are taking care of sick family members. And sadly, some students have lost family members during this time.

So, there I found myself lecturing to a computer screen and posting the terrible and somewhat embarrassing narration on Canvas for students to access and go over on their own time. This is not why I became a teacher. I miss the personal interaction that I have with students in class. I truly miss it. Quizzes were easy to transition on-line. Students probably liked this even better as they were open-book and open-notes and the grades were on average over 10-points higher. This was the least I could do for them, though, to ease their own anxiety. I mean, I could barely focus, so, how could they?

The biggest question I received, though, was what did I do about my science labs. I teach both an introduction Oceanography lab and upper-level Sedimentation Stratigraphy lab. Luckily, the Oceanography lab was easy to warp up as they used materials either available on-line or I could easily provide them on Canvas. Then I wrapped it up with Chasing Coral and called it a semester with 10 labs. To put it in perspective, they missed a field trip on UMW’s research boat and a final lab that analyzed the data they would have collected. I did not find it in my or their best interest to create make-up labs as nothing could replace that experience.

Sadly though, my Sedimentation and Stratigraphy lab was another story. We were just wrapping up a project before classes went on-line and so they had remaining their last major project that required collecting a 4.5-meter marsh core, and analyzing it to determine the sedimentation history in the Chesapeake Bay region. Since we could not collect the core, or perform any of the lab work, the only option I had without redesigning the entire end of the class was to provide the students the data from last year to interpret and write up as their final report for this writing intensive class. This was the best I could do. Did they lose out a lot? Yes. Did they gain as much from it? No. Maybe with less distractions they still could have. I reminded them that science works this way sometimes and that my masters research was completed entirely off of data already collected. The problem was focus and motivation – without collecting the data, they were not motivated, especially as Covid-19 caused an unwelcome distraction.

My students

This brings me to my students. Students can be fragile, too. Many of my students were already facing emotional problems before this. Many of those same students I had to reach out to personally because they were MIA since the on-line transition. This pandemic has affected all of us but I found it extremely important to realize we are not all in the same boat. Some students could not go home for safety reasons. Some students’ parents lost their jobs. Some students lost family members because of Covid-19. Some students lost family members unrelated to Covid-19. Some students’ depression got so bad they could not function. This is the reality and I know I am not the only educator facing this. I extended deadlines. I personally called the students who were not responding on Canvas or to email. I offered incomplete grades to allow students to finish their work over the summer. The University offered alternative grading as well, which I whole-heartedly support for any student who wants to take it.

But is there more I could be doing to help with student anxiety and depression during this time? Part of me just wants to wave the remainder of the assignments, but I know that would not be fair. For some, the business of school has been a welcomed distraction. I wish I had time to talk individually with every single one of them. I wish I could tell them that everything will be OK, but I know this may be a lie. So, I made them a short cheesy video, which was quickly thrown together, opening up my family and home, to encourage and motivate them to get through this last week. Most seemed to appreciate it – the least I could do was put a smile on their face.

How my family is fairing

This brings me to my family’s and my own well-being. I will not sugar coat it, we are stressed. It was not long before the aching tightness in my chest took over as I suddenly was facing full-time child care, full-time job, concerns of my students, concerns of my children, and anxiety over my husband’s job. The first week, we had help from the grandparents. But as the local cases rose, and as sickness in our house took over, we decided that we could not have them over any more for everyone’s safety. Just to note, we probably only had bad colds, most likely originating from the Children’s museum, but without testing, we will never know. So, when we said goodbye to our childcare, we were faced with the impossible – work our full-time jobs and parent a 1-year old and 3-year old. This added a mountain of stress and anxiety to us both – not only the task of working full time with the kids, but with the isolation as well.

My husband and I were splitting day time hours 50/50 and then making up work where we could in the evenings and on the weekends. I was lucky his job was being flexible (that did all change last week – another reason we let grandparents back in). However, this meant that all my research came to a screeching halt as I struggled to keep up with teaching and service. Those not familiar with a teaching university, as an assistant professor my teaching load is about 60% (12 credits and 12 contact hours per semester), and service and research are 20% each. I quickly began to have anxiety about tenure, knowing that my productivity was spiraling down the drain. I had already taken 10-months off for my second child and pushed tenure back a year and now the reduced productivity would possibly force me to push it back yet another year, adding another year of uncertainty and another year of less pay. I had even more anxiety knowing the extra burden this put on me as an academic mom, thinking about how junior colleagues without kids have the opportunity to be creative during this time, developing new projects, writing up old projects, or improving their courses, when I am struggling to just stay afloat.

Then my husband discovered his company furloughed the majority of their workforce as their sales dropped. He was spared, for now, but there is no guarantee he will keep his job if things progress and business does not get better.

And then there is my three-year old son, who’s world was just flipped upside down and he cannot process why. His preschool ended abruptly. His grandparents stopped coming over. We are wearing masks. He cannot go anywhere. His groceries are being delivered. When we finally told him grandma was coming back over, he asked “Is the sickness gone?”. In just a couple of weeks, he went from talking fluently to developing a severe stutter, to the point that we can barely understand him. Would the stutter have shown up at some point? Perhaps. But we can only assume the stress of the situation, something he is aware of but can’t process, was a trigger.

But in the end, I always try to put it in perspective. We both still have our jobs (for now), we both get to spend more time at home with the kids, and we are taking a breather from the hustle and bustle of life. How have I coped? When I am with my kids, I am with my kids. They are too little to take care of themselves and it is not fair to be there but not, so they get 100% of my attention when I am not working. Additionally, we make sure to take time for ourselves. My alone time is running, that is my outlet.

How it put communicating climate change into perspective

I want to circle back now to the beginning, my denial. I am embarrassed to admit that, but the fact is, how could something be so bad that I would be told that my family and I need to stay home for an indefinite amount of time? It took some time for me to come around, trusting what I heard, and sorting through the mass amount of information, from the news and Twitter to local and national governments. Suddenly, I realized that I was my audience when I communicate climate change – an educated citizen struggling to take in the surreal situation of the crisis, soaking up all the information, assessing the credibility, and determining the outcomes with and without action. This gives me a new perspective for the next time I communicate climate change to a broader audience. As a non-expert in viruses, I was able to put myself in the shoes of my audiences, reflecting on what and how information about Covid-19 was presented that was most effective. Here is a summary of my main thoughts:

  1. Trust the experts. But who are the experts? Luckily, the Twitter community is really good about this and I found excellent information from reliable scientists who study this kind of thing first-hand. This illustrates how important it is for scientists studying climate to speak out about the climate crisis – people want to hear what we have to say!
  2. I needed to put the alternatives into perspective. When I was able to see the modeling studies that illustrated the different curves, it made sense. When I could visualize the severity of deaths without all the measures in place, it made sense. But for me, it took primary sources from the real scientists. I think this is done quite a bit for climate communication, illustrating the outcomes based on different emission scenarios and the resulting consequences from such (for example, 2°C versus 1.5°C warming). Nevertheless, it reassured me that this approach is beneficial to connect the reality to the public.
  3. I needed to hear it over and over as if the more I heard it, the more it stuck. This really resonated with me because sometimes when I talk about climate change, I feel like I am beating the dead horse – most people know it is happening so why do I continue to say it over and over? But it needs to be said over and over. It takes time for people to process information and the more they hear it, the more it will stick, hopefully leading to action.
  4. There is strength in numbers. We all watch what our friends, family, and community members are doing. If we model staying home, if we model wearing masks, then it will make others feel more comfortable doing so. If we model behavior that reduces our carbon footprint, if we model activism to commit our leaders to enact strict carbon reduction policies, it will be noticed and others will jump on board.
  5. And maybe most importantly is having empathy for the situation. Like I said earlier, I really like the saying that we are all in this together but we are not all in the same boat. It is so true whether we are talking about Covid-19 or climate change. The disparities are large, and in both situations low social-economic communities are disproportionately affected. Reflecting on this before we communicate about a crisis in general will earn a magnitude of more trust from the audience.

Now that I have come to these realities and have adjusted to the new norm, I am looking forward to 1) using my science background to provide trusted information regarding the Covid-19 situation and 2) communicating more on climate change and even tying in connections between the two crises. If you made it to the bottom of this post, I appreciate you taking the time to read my very personal experiences and thoughts as my family, students and I go through these challenging times.

I wish everyone well.

Pamela Grothe