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An other worldly experience

Updated Monday, 6th June 2011

Scientist Tom Trull became intrigued by the ocean when he first encountered the Australian seaside. He now works to identify what makes our planet habitable

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Tom Trull
I'm Tom Trull, I work at the University of Tasmania and the CSIRO here in Hobart, and I'm studying the southern ocean’s ability to take up carbon dioxide.  I would say I'm not an environmentalist, I'm a scientist, and for me it’s quite a large difference.  I'm not an advocate for a world view, just fascinated by how the world functions, and what triggered my interest in how the ocean functions in particular was visiting it.  So I was a farm boy from the middle of the Midwest surrounded by cornfields and I travelled to the seaside here in Australia actually when I was 14, went snorkelling, thought it was amazing, another worldly experience, and wanted to know more about the ocean. 

I'm trying to figure out what makes our planet habitable, and it’s a kind of a geochemical question in a sense that it’s this balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide that controls temperature and the ability for all of us to breathe, because we need oxygen, and yet there are all these other geochemical cycles behind that.  And one in particular I'm interested in is iron, another one’s in alkalinity, these are chemical concepts that affect the way the environment can support life.  So yeah, I guess what motivates me is just trying to understand how the planet works and since we seem to be pushing its metabolism pretty hard, figuring out whether, how much more pushing it can take.  I'm also fascinated more generally about how the ocean controls the conditions that we live in.  I think that the oceans are the origins of life on earth and they're still the reservoir that controls the conditions under which life can continue. 

One thing I'm working on is figuring out how the ocean’s ecosystems are likely to respond to climate warming, so we think our fossil fuel emissions will warm the climate, and it’s becoming more and more certain, we haven’t really delved into how that’s going to affect ocean ecosystems, and it’s going to do it in two ways; through the warming is one, but also as a sort of direct pollution effect of CO2 going into the ocean, which lowers the pH, makes the ocean more acid.  And that, it could have many different impacts, we don’t know how severe they’ll be yet, so one thing that motivates me is figuring out how rapidly our world might change, and particularly some of the things that I really love, like the Great Barrier Reef or the health of the ecosystems around Tasmania, and interestingly that acidification will occur relatively quickly in polar waters.  So here, looking out from Hobart at the southern ocean, it’s nearby and so I think about it often. 

Am I an optimist or a pessimist?  When I look out to 2020, I have to say that well, I'm an optimist by nature and I'd like to think that all the talk that we’re having about the need to address climate change will come to an agreement to actually take action, and I'm an optimist that we can take action, I think there are actions we can take.  So I'm optimistic that it’s a problem that we could solve if we chose to.  I'm pessimistic that we will choose to.  And I don’t really know why there seems to be so much inertia in our society to change, it seems to be a fear of change by many people. I do think we could take action to reduce CO2 emissions, I do think there are many things we could do in terms of alternative energy generation.  I think these things would be good for Australia, they would be exciting for Australia, more generally globally there are a lot of opportunities.  A lot of it I think is being excited about changing your own life from a place where we drive in and out of a city every day to where we ride our bicycles, and maybe we don’t go in today because we’re working via the internet.  So I think there are, you know, I'm very optimistic that we can make the change, I'm kind of sad and pessimistic that we will.  Somehow even though we complain about the commutes in our cars or we wish that we spent more time in nature, we’re a little bit slow to get off the couch, and I find that disappointing.  So if you ask me do I have any evidence to back up my optimistic hope that everything will be okay?  No.  Am I still optimistic?  Yes, because I think it’s the only way you can go through life is to be optimistic, and I think in promoting that optimism and looking for solutions it’s something that’s much more rewarding and sustainable for me as a person than doing what I've been doing I think for the last few years, which is something that we in the business call documenting the demise, where we kept saying look at this, it’s degraded, look at that, it’s degraded.  We want to say look at this, we can do this and it’ll be better, we’ll be able to save things, we’ll be able to make, you know, we’ll be able to see the world change but in ways that we like.  So I'm optimistic that we have the brainpower to do it, we have the both technical and behavioural solutions that are envisioned, and I hope we get there, but I think 2020 is a very tight time frame.






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