She's an oceanographer and a blogger wrapped in one. But more than that the incredible Danielle Luttenberg Meitiv is also an ocean advocate, a marine educator, a conservationist, and an optimist when it comes to the future of the world's oceans.
Danielle Meitiv received her BS in Biology at the University of Buffalo and her MS in Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. She's well-versed in issues of global warming and climate change (where the ocean is concerned) and has done her research, working for organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Defense Fund.
We caught up with Danielle just before she headed over to India to learn all about Indian climate science and policy and we were thrilled to be able to pick her brain about our favorite topics!
How did your interest in the ocean begin?
I love the smell of the sea and the sound of the surf. I love the fantastic variety of creatures that live in the sea, all their different sizes, shapes, and strange colors. I love the motion and the freedom of the sea, the idea that the waves that touch the shores of Maryland, where I live, originated way across the Atlantic, and the water that laps the shore has traveled around the globe – many times.
I can't remember a time that I wasn't interested in the oceans. I grew up on in Queens, NY, with the Long Island Sound to the north, and the Atlantic to the south. We took a vacation to Bar Harbor when I was 7 or 8 – a park ranger put a sea cucumber in my hands and I was enthralled. I do remember exactly when I decided to become a marine scientists: after I devoured Mari Curie's biography in 2nd grade (and decided that I wanted to be a scientist), my teacher Mrs. Drucker gave me the book “Lady with a Spear,” the autobiography of Eugenie Clark. From that moment on, I was hooked on the oceans for my career, although then I thought I would become an ichthyologist like Dr. Clark. How does this extend to global warming and climate change?
For one thing, the ocean is the biggest part of the near-term – decade to century/millennial – climate system (the Earth's crust trumps it on longer timescales). The ocean captures and transports heat, absorbs CO2, produces oxygen, impacts weather, and provides the water that comes down as rain or snow. Climate change is also the single biggest threat to life in the oceans – it affects all of the above functions plus the tens of millions of species that live there. So for me, it isn't a big leap from caring about the oceans to working against catastrophic climate change.
What are the some of the biggest issues today involving climate change and the ocean?
Global warming is warming the oceans as well as the land. Many ocean species are adapted to a very narrow range of temperatures. This is particularly true at the tropics and the poles – species like corals become very stressed when the water temperature exceeds their preferred range and bleaching results. The melting icesheets of Greenland and Antarctica are raising sea level and possibly impacting ocean circulation. This is already affecting coastal communities and may have impacts that feedback to further warm the climate.
NOAA estimates that the oceans have absorbed about half of the CO2 produced by the burning of fossil fuels. This may seem like good news for us, but it's bad news for the creatures that live there. The increased CO2 has made the oceans more acidic. According to NOAA: “While the effects of observed ocean acidification on the marine biosphere are as yet undocumented, the progressive acidification of oceans is expected to have negative impacts on marine shell-forming organisms (e.g. corals) and their dependent species." Well, since many of the plankton that make up the base of the marine food chain are 'shell-forming', we can expect ocean acidification to effect most of the species that live there! You can find blog posts I wrote about this issue here and here.
You're an educator too who has spoken in different setting about things like coral reefs and salt marshes. What are you telling your audience?
“The sea is the lifeblood of the planet.” That is what I said when I spoke before the Independent World Commission on the Ocean (IWCO) in 1997, and that message comes through in all of my teaching and talks. The ocean is beautiful and majestic, awe-inspiring and immense – and essential to life on Earth. It's easy to look at the surface and not see what's going on beneath the surface, to think that we can never have an impact, but of course we can and do – the Gulf spill is a painful reminder of that. Our stewardship of the oceans is not only necessary for the creatures that live there – it's essential for us as well. For or bodies but our minds and spirits as well. Who doesn't love a walk on the beach? Or looking at fish in a aquarium? My kids are captivated by shells on the shore and stop at every fish tank they see (we'll set one up when the youngest is a bit older – now she's only 2). You are researching for a science fiction novel? Tell me about that.
I've been writing non-fiction for years as a part of my work, but fiction writing is a newly discovered passion for me. I just started last year and I love it! Since the oceans are also a passion for me, that's what I'm writing about. I can't say too much, but essentially my novel focuses on a race of humans adapted to life in the sea. I've headed away from straight sci-fi and into fantasy, but I've used my background, passion, and knowledge to make the creatures and their world as believable as possible. In addition to science, it includes mystery, action, murder, and romance! I'm about halfway through and I have an agent interested – now I just have to finish it.
What are the benefits of being a marine scientist?
First, there are all the benefits of being any kind of scientist: spending your days learning, asking and answering questions about life and the world, engaging your brain and indulging your curiosity all the time. Many people think that scientists are serious or straight-laced but that couldn't be further from the truth! Most of the ones I know (and I know A LOT, including my husband who is a theoretical physicist), are like big curious kids who are passionate about learning and discovery. Who wouldn't want to do that everyday!
And that leads to the second benefit, which is being part of an amazing, interesting, and exciting international community. I'm heading to India at the end of June to meet with researchers and attend a scientific conference. While I expect to encounter many new and unfamiliar things, I know that I will have a lot in common with the scientists that I meet from there and elsewhere, simply become of our interests and membership in the global scientific community.
As for marine science – well, everyone knows that marine people are the coolest... Seriously, I have traveled to South Africa and now India, been on huge commercial shipping vessels and fishing boats, tracked whales and plankton, studied 65 million year old samples from miles beneath the ocean floor and spent my career caring about a body of water that covers more than 70% of the Earth's surface – who could ask for anything more? Among other research, you're also studying the role of black carbon in the melting glaciers and snowpack of the Arctic and the Himalayas. Tell me about that.
Carbon dioxide is the most important human-produced greenhouse gas, and reducing CO2 emissions is the only way to avert catastrophic climate change. But CO2 is not the only contributor to warming – other gases and atmospheric particles play a part. Black carbon or BC is not a gas but an aerosol – a microscopic particle so small that it can stay suspended in air. BC is a product of incomplete or inefficient combustion. It's the gray or black part of smoke that you see coming out of old tailpipes, barbecue grills, and open fires. Just like anything dark or black, BC absorbs incoming solar radiation. When BC particles are suspended in the air, they heat it up, adding to warming. When they land on an otherwise light surface – one that normally reflects sunlight, like snow or ice – the heat they capture can cause melting. Unlike greenhouse gases, BC only stays in the atmosphere for around week. So if we stop producing it, it will disappear within that short amount of time, and no longer warm atmosphere or ice. CO2 on the other hand, will stick around for centuries and beyond.
Black carbon from Europe and North America travels to the Arctic, where it accelerates the melting of sea ice. As the ice melts, the dark water underneath is exposed. This water absorbs more heat than the ice, causing even further warming and melting. Ways to reduce the amount of BC that gets to the Arctic include retrofitting old dirty diesel engines, and reducing shipping speeds through the region. BC is also contributing warming at the 'Third Pole' – the Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau region. Here, BC contributes to glacial melting in the similar as in the Arctic, but also by impacting the monsoon system, reducing snowfall to the high mountains. From June 28 – July 8, I will travel to India to meet with scientists and environmental groups, and attend a science conference, to learn more about the regional climate impacts of BC. What do you think is the future of the world's oceans?
I'm optimistic. We have a long way to go to address the challenges of climate change as well as the other threats that face our seas. However, in the last few years we have seen an unprecedented level of interest, understanding, and concern among people all over the world about restoring and protecting the world we share. And make no mistake – it will take a global effort to combat climate change, stop overfishing, prevent pollution and runoff, and restore coastal and ocean habitats. I don't know how much progress we will make in my lifetime, but I'm committed to doing my part, and passing on the legacy of responsible ocean and environmental protection and stewardship to my children and all future generations. Are you a marine conservationist?
Of course! With my love for the oceans and all I know about what humans are doing to them, what else could I possible be? :-)
What are your plans for the future in your field?
You mean beyond my India trip?:-) In the short-term I plan to learn as much as possible about Indian climate science and policy, from the people involved on the ground. I will continue to work on my novel, with the goal of completing a first draft by the end of the year. And I plan to keep blogging on ocean and climate issues at Brave Blue Words, adding interviews and guest posts later in the year. And I'll dig up ever more lawn in my yard and plant it with food crops, which I love to grow year-round (even in the mid-Atlantic!)
As for my longer-term plan: my career has taken so many interested and unexpected twists and turns that I couldn't possibly predict, much less plan for it! However, I have no doubt that it will include aspects of ocean science, research, writing, teaching, and conservation. Those have been been my lifelong passions, and I don't see them changing anytime soon.