John Kerry, right, introduces Marcia McNutt to students. | Aggie Alvez/Discovery Education
Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, joined U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on 1 June as he talked with high-school students about ocean protection and environmental issues.
McNutt, president-elect of the National Academy of Sciences, took part in a classroom discussion at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., where five students recently surpassed academic competitors at 69 other schools to win the Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl. Montgomery Blair students had earlier been the Chesapeake Bay Regional Champions of the National Ocean Sciences Bowl.
“There is no better antidote for pessimism about the future of the planet than to spend a morning with a roomful of brilliant students such as the class at Montgomery Blair High School,” McNutt said following her visit to Silver Spring. “The students are informed, engaged, solutions-oriented, and our best hope for a sustainable future.”
Kerry offered brief remarks, answered students’ questions, and turned the group over to McNutt as well as Catherine A. Novelli, the State Department’s under secretary for economic growth, energy, and the environment, and Vaughan Turekian, the former AAAS chief international officer who currently serves as science and technology advisor to the secretary of State.
Protecting the Earth’s oceans directly relates to national priorities and human quality of life, Kerry told the students in Silver Spring. Oceans play a key role in mitigating climate change, in part because they absorb about 25% of global carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation, he said. Oceans are also an economic driver and a source of protein-rich food, but unfortunately, Kerry added, excess carbon dioxide acidifies the oceans, and that negatively affects marine life and fisheries. Kerry further outlined the impacts of pollution from farm runoff, which causes algae blooms and dead zones in the oceans, the massive buildup of plastic waste, and illegal fishing.
“Life on Earth wouldn’t exist without the oceans,” Kerry said.
Oceans are increasingly threatened by climate change caused by carbon-dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases: “Last year was the hottest year in recorded history, and that was the hottest year in the hottest decade in recorded history,” Kerry said. As ice continues to melt, sea levels will keep rising, possibly by “three to six feet over a course of time — end of century into the next century,” he told students. With less ice and snow to reflect heat back into space, meanwhile, global temperatures will rise at an even faster rate. Kerry lauded the historic 2015 agreement of 195 nations, including the United States, as an important step toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
During her half-hour of interaction with the class, McNutt said, students asked questions ranging from the feasibility of the OTEC, or Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion — a strategy for harvesting energy from the oceans — to whether deforestation in Africa “might actually have a silver lining if it leads to ocean iron fertilization.” (McNutt’s response was “no” because drawbacks to the hydrological cycle would likely exceed the benefits in terms of global climate.)
Montgomery Blair High School students Elliot Kienzle, Eric Lu, Alex Miao, Arnold Mong, and Jamie Vinson clinched the National Science Bowl after correctly answering a tough final question, which Kerry read aloud: “Material A has a bulk modulus that is twice the bulk modulus of Material B. If both A and B have the same densities, by what factor must the speed of sound in B be multiplied to find the speed of sound in A?” The correct answer, Kerry noted, is “by a factor of two.”
The meeting with students was tied to the upcoming Our Ocean conference, which Secretary Kerry will host, September 15-16 in Washington, D.C. The conference will address issues such as marine protected areas, sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, and climate-related impacts on the oceans.