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UBC RESEARCHER’S BIOGEOCHEMICAL APPROACH TO THE ENVIRONMENT
By Suzanne Forcese
Biogeochemistry is an interdisciplinary scientific approach to the understanding of biological, geological, chemical and physical processes occurring in the environment. As climate changes, the properties of our marine waters are also changing.
WaterToday spoke with Andrew Margolin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, MITACS –Tula Foundation Scholar at the Pelagic Ecosystems Lab, University of British Columbia (Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries). “My goal is to apply my biogeochemical approach to understand how the coastal productivity, fisheries, and water quality that we depend on will be affected by climate change and our mitigation pathways.”
Margolin, who was a bit of a late bloomer to the world of science, was stung by the environmental science research bug after watching the movie, An Inconvenient Truth. “I was interested in the environment and the outdoors and the movie compelled me and my interest in climate change.” For Margolin, the challenge was a high school path that did not indicate he was a strong science student. But his determination was able to override that concern. “I took one course at a time and realized my interest is in chemistry and that I could apply chemistry to study the environment.”|
“I like to conceptualize biogeochemistry in a Venn diagram that includes the four core disciplines, representing the biogeochemical approach. Considering my background and training as a chemist, chemistry is central to my approach. Another way I like to think about my approach is that chemistry is the tool that I use to understand the physical, biological, geological and chemical processes in the aquatic environment.”
For his PhD research, Margolin focused on the biogeochemistry processes – nutrient delivery from rivers, degradation of organic material, and circulation pathways – in the marginal seas (the Black Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean).
Margolin’s interest in the Arctic began in 2007 when Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent. “I was compelled by how quickly the Arctic was and is changing.” Presently, “Arctic sea ice likely reached its minimum extent for the year, at 4.15 million square kilometers on September 18, 2019, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. The 2019 minimum is ranked at second lowest in the 41-year satellite record, effectively tied with 2008 and 2016,” (NSIDC )
“It became very clear to me that climate change is amplified in the Arctic and that it is important to study.”
“My first field experience was in the Drake passage – the stretch of water between South America and Antarctica. Hearing stories from the other researchers of the ‘iron men on wooden ships’ got me hooked on reading about the historical explorations of Ernest Shakelton, Frank Wild, Douglas Mawson and Robert Falcon Scott.” That was the inspiration that led Margolin to more Arctic research.
In 2015, Margolin was involved in an Arctic expedition as part of the Geotraces Program (geotraces.org) which is an international program aiming to improve the understanding of biogeochemical cycles and large-scale distribution of trace elements and their isotopes in the marine environment. It was a magical first trip to the North Pole. “It sort of exists in this theoretical space where it is at all longitudes at the same time as well as existing in none of them. (You can literally run around the world in a matter of minutes!) It is a single point on a map where
the latitude is 90°N and every direction you look is South. On most map projections, the poles are stretched to span all longitudes giving the misconception that the Arctic and Antarctic are disproportionately large, when in fact they are small and hosts to fragile ecosystems that are rapidly changing.”
In 2017, Margolin’s second expedition to the North Pole involved investigating changes in the carbonate chemistry of sea ice on ice algae in the Arctic Ocean.
Margolin believes it is important to study Arctic Sea ice ecosystems because “they are rapidly changing. Arctic Sea ice concentrations and extent have dramatically decreased within the course of my lifetime and the Arctic Ocean will likely experience ice-free summers within my life. It is important to understand how these ecosystems will be altered in the seasonal absence of ice as well as increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in turn makes its way to seawater and sea ice, altering its chemistry. That can be detrimental to the organisms that exist within the unique ecosystems of the Arctic hosts.”
To bridge the gap between environmental science speak and the language of everyday people, “I created margolab.com to make the study of climate change more understandable to people by using multimedia. My hope is that as I continue to develop it, this platform will make understanding our changing environment more accessible by linking research outlines and publications with other resources. In time I hope that it will grow to host the work of other scientists, artists, and journalists, making it a collaborative platform for communicating an important concept to a broad audience.”
His Arctic expeditions also gave birth to “Arctic Andy” blogs. “I recalled reading that alliteration is not acceptable for scientific writing. My given (and preferred) name Andrew is too formal. I decided to go with ‘Arctic Andy’ for my outreach efforts hoping to break some of the ‘norms’ associated with communicating science to the general public.”
Margolin’s current position at UBC is his primary focus, keeping Arctic Andy on ice for the moment, although he is expecting to write “Tales From An Ice Floe” based on his sea ice floe research near the North Pole.
In collaboration with Drs. Brian Hunt and Stephanie Waterman from UBC, a PhD student (Patrick Pata) and Post Doc researcher Hayley Dosser, and Jennifer Jackson from the Hakai Institute, “I am currently studying the biogeochemical – or simply just the chemical – properties of British Columbia’s coastal ocean and how they relate to the physical circulation of the waters – including ocean currents and river input –and the biological activity – whether that’s phytoplankton blooms or the productivity of salmon fisheries and the lower trophic levels that they depend on. I look at variations in the water properties and am working on characterizing distinct regions of BC’c coastal ocean based on them. Their properties include the temperature of the water, its salinity or salt content, the amount of dissolved oxygen present in the water and the amount of nutrients in the water. All of these properties vary throughout the year and provide insights into B.C.’s coastal ocean.”
Outside of the scientific realm of his “ocean biogeochemistry” bubble, Margolin is hoping that his work will inform and strengthen our food security. “As climate changes, the properties of our marine waters are also changing, and that in turn will affect fisheries that we depend on for food. This also extends to our freshwater security, as river runoff – especially in regions like BC – plays an important role in shaping coastal ecosystems. Not only do rivers deliver freshwater to the coasts, they also deliver nutrients that aquatic plants called ‘phytoplankton’ require to grow -- the base of the food chain. If our freshwater demand increases, as it surely will with an increasing population, it will be important for us to understand the consequences of altering the riverine delivery of freshwater to the coasts.”
As for future plans, Andrew Margolin will “continue studying the oceans and how they will be changing on time scales that we will observe over the course of our lifetimes. The knowledge gained will improve our quality of life, our food and our freshwater securities. The biodiversity of our planet will continue to decrease if we continue to exploit resources…but I think there is hope.”
Perhaps Arctic Andy will guide us toward that hope.
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