Courtesy of Switgard Duesterloh

Carved pumpkin faces and witch outfits will not fix the outfall of the COVID pandemic, climate change or ocean acidification. 

Halloween in Kodiak is often a dark and stormy night. That is only fitting, for the origin story of Halloween is believed to have its roots in a Celtic festival celebrating the end of summer and the beginning of darker times of the year. The superstitious Celts would dress up to scare away the evil spirits, which could under cover of darkness cross the barrier between the world of the dead and the world of the living.

I repeat: the evil spirits are supposed to be scared by some people dressed up in silly costumes, not the other way around!

It sounds to me as if the Celts were dressing up to make themselves look scary in the hollow eyes of the spirits. Animals use this tactic a lot: For example, if a dog raises its hackles to look big and tough when approaching another dog, or a pufferfish suddenly blows up like a big spiky balloon to look scary to a potential predator. 

The night before Halloween I enjoyed some special time with a couple of very close friends carving pumpkins and dancing to the “Ghostbusters” theme song. At some point the conversation touched the evil specters of our time, and I was uncomfortably thrown back into a reality where carved pumpkin faces and witch outfits will not fix the outfall of the COVID pandemic, climate change or ocean acidification. 

People are scared of the unknown: The dark is scary because we rely on our eyesight for information and we cannot see in the dark. For a while now, many of us have thought that the COVID pandemic would wash over us and allow a recovery to a new state of normality, but this specter has raised several ugly heads like the mythical hydra that grows new heads whenever one is cut off. Our masked faces and vaccine shots do not seem to be driving this specter out of the world — or at least it takes longer than anticipated. So, how are we going to live with this evil spirit that has been around for two years and will not be scared away? It is the lack of an answer and the uncertainty that takes its toll on our ability to plan, thrive and enjoy the moment. I have seen people reach a threshold of how much they can adapt to COVID caused change.

The dictionary definition of threshold is a level of intensity or exposure that must be exceeded for a certain reaction or result to occur. In my work the concept of thresholds is an important one: When we talk about the impacts of warming ocean temperatures, lowering pH, and the aragonite saturation coefficient — a measure of how much calcium is available for shell building organisms to make their skeletons — we wonder at what intensity or exposure something happens. Because stress factors almost always come in combinations this is not a simple concept. I just attended a workshop about ocean acidification research gaps, and there is a lot of talk for the need to know thresholds for species of interest.

The old saying, “When it rains it pours,” describes the sentiment that when one thing goes wrong there is usually more bad news to come. Ocean acidification describes the chemical changes in the seawater associated with the exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the sea surface. As the concentration of carbon dioxide rises in the atmosphere more of it is dissolved into the seawater. However, temperature, the salt content and composition of the water, and the load of organic substances all influence ocean chemistry. Each organism has different sensitivities and thresholds for those factors. Find and monitor the threshold for an organism and you can identify environmental conditions that limit the survival or welfare of that organism.

Marine animals and people alike are adapted to a set of environmental conditions. Change can cause stress. Too much change can exceed one’s ability to cope. Researchers are working to identify the more and less resilient organisms or life stages. For people, it is important to carefully monitor oneself and those close to us for the signs of stress caused by too much change. As we see people being driven toward thresholds of tolerance it is important to remember that we can change each other’s experiences and memories during these taxing times. 

I am looking at the seasonal graphs of changing carbon dioxide concentrations in the surface seawater; the wavy up and down trends are a picture of the ocean slowly breathing in and out. Just as our amazing planet breathes through these tough times of increasing heat, it may be good advice to remember to breathe deeply, take mental breaks, dress up silly, and drive the specters away. 








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