Peter Brewer, ocean chemist

The eminent ocean chemist discusses blobby carbon dioxide, squirreling gases on the seafloor, and the big, bitter problem coming our way. Interview by Jane Liaw

May 25, 2008

Photo courtesy of MBARI

Peter Brewer is a gentlemanly iconoclast. He speaks softly and courteously but carries a big intellectual stick, backed by decades of marine research and a large stack of publications. As director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) soon after it opened, Brewer embraced founder David Packard's vision of breaking the mold on how marine studies are conducted. He put in place key ideas and equipment that MBARI scientists use today.

Back as a research scientist for the last decade, Brewer now focuses on ocean acidification, what he calls the "bitter twin" of global warming. Humans pump carbon dioxide into the air by the billions of tons every year, and the world's oceans absorb most of it. As our output grows, the CO2 turns seawater increasingly acidic; global warming will only exacerbate the effects.

Brewer, 67, spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston in February 2008 to bring attention to this often overlooked problem. He's been instrumental in the scientific dialogue on how (and whether) to store greenhouse gases in the deep sea, as an alternative to letting them wreak havoc in the air. For the past few years, Brewer has experimented with injecting small amounts of CO2 onto the seafloor, with strange results. The pressure at those depths causes CO2 to form blobs of liquids that look like jelly and can be poked without breaking.

Recently, Brewer has branched out to tackle the thorny problem of outdated chemical weapons dumped into oceans off U.S. shores and elsewhere after World War II. He coauthored a March 2008 article in Environmental Science & Technology to drum up attention to the dangers these chemical agents pose to ocean scientists and fishers.

Impressive achievements for a man who got into ocean science by chance when, as a chemistry major at the University of Liverpool, he heard about a project involving an ocean cruise. He was soon on a pair of nine-month voyages, the first of many scientific cruises he would take. He's made a life of the sea ever since.

What did you learn on those first cruises?

It seemed to come fairly easily to me to relate the small amount I did know about geochemistry and chemistry to what we were measuring. Instead of books being abstract things where you had to learn the stuff because it was on an exam, it became very real. You could look at results and data, you could see when you made a measurement it meant something. It felt good. As a kid, I was always out walking, finding things, collecting things. This is what I like doing.

Did you enjoy your time as head of MBARI in the 1990s? Did you like being an administrator?

Working with David Packard was just an amazing experience. Dave wanted to drive the institute a certain way: He wanted to build the infrastructure and set the tone in a engineering-science partnership, and to have a focus on ships and vehicles. Most scientists would have said, "Why do I want an undersea vehicle? I want to make the measurements I want, today." Dave would just blow by all that—we were never building a ship, we were building the Mothership for the ROV [remotely operated vehicle]. It was always run together as one word: The Mothership-of-the-ROV.

It sounds like other marine research institutions don't operate the same way?

No, they don't. Not everyone realizes it, but our independence allows us to do these difficult things. When I put that beaker of CO2 on the seafloor, it was technically challenging. It also had enormous policy and scientific impact. We just went and did it.

In 2001, when you were profiled in Science, you seemed to be open to the idea of storing CO2 under the sea. Since then you've done a lot more work in this area, including studies that show organisms are harmed by CO2 injections in the deep sea. What are your thoughts about ocean sequestration now?

The real holdup for implementing carbon sequestration lies in the very serious cost. Right now, as a rough number, it would take about 30% of the energy output of a power plant to do the extra work to capture the CO2, clean it up, get it ready for transport and storage, and a fairly large infrastructure. People want to do it, but if you look at the scale of it, it's a sobering issue. But the environmental damage we're doing is also a real concern. There isn't an easy way out.

You're talking about the cost here; what about the potential damage that you've started to show by injecting high levels of CO2 into the deep sea?

We're putting about seven billion tons of carbon dioxide a year into the ocean. So on the scale of things, it doesn't really rise to the level of environmental concern of the issues we're dealing with now. It might be that [sequestration] makes sense, that it would ameliorate climate change, or hold it at bay at least for many centuries.

Let's talk about the first experiments you did, putting that beaker down in the deep sea. I watched some video of the experiment and found it very memorable. What was your reaction when you first saw it?

It was astonishing, really astonishing. But that wasn't quite how we got to it. I was at a meeting in Japan with [my wife] Hilary, out at a very noisy dinner with students. We were having a good time.

Was sake involved?

Sake and beer and loud noise. I had given a talk that day to show what MBARI could do. I was frustrated that we weren't doing more. I went back to the lab and I said that we have to raise the level of skill of our experiments. We publish far too few papers, we have to do more. My staff said, it's too difficult, and I said, no, it's not. We should be able to do an experiment in a day. They said, ok, if you think so, you show us. I had in mind to do methane hydrate experiments, so I went and did one. It was January of '96. We took about $500 worth of parts, and I did the world's first deep-sea geochemical experiment with an undersea vehicle. We actually forced methane gas into seawater and made methane hydrate, imaged it, and wrote a paper on it. It was great fun.

And the CO2 beaker experiments?

One of my colleagues on the cruise said we made methane hydrate, so we should be able to make CO2 hydrate. I was also very concerned at the time that the people who were going to do a large CO2 sequestration experiment [in Hawaii] were running into all kinds of trouble [with public protests that halted the tests]. It seemed a big mistake to allow runaway public opinion to deny scientists the privilege of doing something as simple as an experiment. The ability of scientists to do objective experiments to tell the world what happens is a fundamental part of our culture. That people would panic and kick up a fuss over something as simple as putting out some CO2 seemed insane to me, so we just went and did it.

"The real holdup for implementing carbon sequestration lies in the very serious cost. But the environmental damage we're doing is also a real concern. There isn't an easy way out."

How does global warming worsen the ocean CO2 situation?

There's a set of poorly understood connections, but basically, oxygen in the ocean will decrease for multiple reasons: the lack of ventilation, increase in reaction rates, the lower solubility of oxygen in warm waters. They'll act together to give us lower oxygen as we're getting higher CO2 from fossil-fuel burning. We're also going to get more carbon dioxide from the increased respiration, so the ocean will get a double whammy of lower oxygen and higher CO2.

And why does it matter if the water gets more acidic?

That would be harmful to marine life. Anything that lives in the ocean will find it harder to make its living, harder to breathe, harder to reproduce, because the chemical environment has changed.

Have you talked to many policymakers?

No, we're beginning that process. When they ask, "What can we do about it?" and the answer is, "Not much," they tend to lose interest. People don't get the scale of this. One thing we could do is educate people that there's no easy way out—the scale of it is very large. Most people don't get numbers.

This chemical weapons research seems completely different from anything else you're working on. How did you get interested in chemical weapons disposal in the ocean?

There was a set of articles celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United Nations convention to destroy various assembled weapons around the world. [They're] old stockpiles, not good for anything except destroying. I thought, 'They don't report the stuff in the ocean. The ocean's always getting shortchanged.' The U.S. Army has the lead on this and they keep the record of what's out there. NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] makes the charts, they plot the positions. From what we can tell, the Army doesn't have a record of what's happened at the sites, probably because the two sides don't talk. It's your typical screw-up, where there's bits of information that don't always match. If you're a scientist who goes to sea to measure things, you'd like to know what's there. Scientists are blundering into this stuff. These are big areas; some are right off Monterey [California]. It's time somebody said, "Just clean it up, give us the information, tell us what's out there."

At the end of the day, what do you hope your legacy will be?

I hope you can ask me that question ten years from now and I'm still giving you scientific answers.

So — to stay productive, to keep thinking?

Oh yeah, you do the best you can and you learn things. In our case, applying some sensible chemistry to what appear to be complicated problems seems to work well. Obviously the impact of the extraordinary levels of CO2 on the ocean is going to be a huge intellectual challenge. I can see multiple ways in which we're going to create huge changes. That's got to be argued through and followed through. We're peeling away the layers of ignorance.

Jane Liaw, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned a B.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford University and a Master's in Public Health from UC Berkeley. She has worked as a reporting intern at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and the "Quest" science series at KQED (Ch. 9) in San Francisco. Jane received a summer reporting fellowship from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and will write about health and medicine at the Sacramento Bee.

© 2008 Jane Liaw