Ocean Networks Canada’s CEO Dr. Kate Moran Talks Climate Change, Acidification and Changing Coastlines

As CEO of Ocean Networks Canada, Dr. Kate Moran spends her life studying the oceans and has a front-row seat to the causes and results of climate change.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Those who feel the pull of the tides and the lure of endless blue know exactly what famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau meant when he said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Kate Moran remembers lazy summer days at the beach and an early love affair with the ocean. It was a feeling that never left her and one she could hardly have realized would set the groundwork for her life’s work.

After earning a degree in civil engineering, Moran got a job with Procter & Gamble but realized quite early that the rungs of the corporate ladder weren’t something she wanted to swing from. “That job basically scared the crap out of me,” she laughs. “It was like, ‘Here’s your life for the next 30 years.’”

And so, as countless disillusioned dreamers before her have done, Moran turned to the sea and its depth of mystery and scientific wonder. Someone suggested she explore a then-new program in ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island. That was all it took. “I went out to sea in one of the worst storms that I’ve ever been in, and I fell in love with it.”

What followed was a heady career arc that included several post-graduate degrees, dozens of publication credits and even working for a couple of years in Obama’s White House as assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy with a focus on climate policy issues. She was front and centre for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.

Her research has made her one of the world’s most sought-after voices on marine geotechnics, paleoclimate and seafloor stability — and she’s led major expeditions, including the first drilling in the Arctic Ocean in 2004 and finding the source of the earthquake that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Moran arrived at the University of Victoria in 2011 as professor in the Faculty of Earth and Ocean Sciences and as director of NEPTUNE Canada (the ocean observation and monitoring system). The next year, she took over as president and CEO of the UVic-based Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), which operates the world’s most scientifically and technologically advanced cabled ocean observatory network off Canada’s 202,080 kilometres of coastline.

ONC’s research, she says, is getting out on the edge of things, like sequestering CO2 into the seafloor and testing for earthquakes too small to be felt on the surface. “We have the resources. We have the technical people. So we can jump on those things.”

She counts among her good friends Bob Ballard, the man who discovered the wreck of the Titanic and owns, through his Ocean Exploration Trust, the deep-sea exploration ship Nautilus, which is based in Victoria and used by ONC.

In a frank conversation with Douglas, Moran shared her concerns for the future of our oceans.

What’s the biggest threat to our coastline?

Globally, the sea level is rising. In the northwest of Alaska, there’s no sea ice forming — [or] it’s now forming much later in the fall — storms happen earlier in the fall and there’re huge erosion events. They’re moving villages. The coastline of Virginia is sinking, and the sea level’s rising. It could be tied with the loss of sea ice in the Arctic. That has all these other linking problems. You lose sea ice in the Arctic — it was probably the cause of the “warm blob” in the Pacific that caused the lack of nutrients that has meant now we’re seeing less returns of salmon. It’s also causing the jet stream to go wonky, so we have these really extreme winters.

I think that here, right in this location, there’s a naturally occurring upwelling. So deep Pacific water upwells just off our coast. It’s naturally low in oxygen and more acidic because of the way ocean circulation is. So now we’re adding ocean acidification that’s caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) [and] that’s making our water more acidic.

We’re just putting in a buoy in Baynes Sound to start monitoring acidification directly for the shellfish industry. [Ocean acidification] will affect the food web more greatly on this coast than on other coasts.

Climatologist James Hansen has chastised scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat of climate change really is. Why have scientists done this?

There was a study that analyzed climate-change papers, and even though the evidence was strong about how [climate change] was serious-serious — it was climate change, it was human caused — the scientists were always cautious about saying anything in the paper. They were afraid of being accused of being sensationalists. That has to change.

The polarizing language being used across society isn’t helpful. I look at it from the geological perspective. We’ve had extreme events in the past like we’re in now, but this is worse. Maybe not as bad as the really bad day for the dinosaurs, but there weren’t people there at those times. We’re here now. We’re seeing it. To me, I wish I weren’t the age I am because I just want to see it to understand the planet’s response. Holy crap! We’re actually causing an extreme climate event ourselves. We’re going to have to do things about it. It’s happening. We already have enough CO2, it’s happening.

The planet heating up like a furnace, drought, an inability to grow grain in many parts of the world, starvation, diseases stored in Arctic ice that will be released, economic collapse, war due to climate change — where do we even begin this conversation?

I think we have to look regionally. What’s happening to us here and what shall we do about it? First, we just have to stop [creating] CO2. That’s just simple, and we have to do that … the soft cost associated with renewables is dropping like a rock, and internationally, there has been success in getting rid of the dominant fossil-fuel subsidies. So those two together are converging in a positive direction. Maybe it’s not fast enough, but you know how things can take off — I’m optimistic about that.

Do the oceans hold some key to survival?

The paleoclimate records from the ocean [hold the key]. This event scientists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, I usually call The Big Heat. It’s an extreme event that happened about 55 million years ago and there was a huge amount of CO2 released … so we know the rate at which it was released, we know the temperature increases, we know there was mass extinction in the ocean, and we know that it took about 100,000 years for the climate to get back on the track it had been on before. That’s what we’re in right now. It’s something like that. So when people say there’s going to be a ‘new normal,’ I’m just so sick of that. There is no normal.

What about ocean acidification?

That’s a big issue. During The Big Heat, there was mass extinction in the ocean. I think we’ve got to advance on aquaculture. What species can survive in extreme ocean acidification? We’re not taking advantage of aquaculture at all in Canada. It is really pathetic here in terms of what we are doing. The fish farms in the ocean are ridiculous.

We know the planet is going to warm by at least 1.5°C. But what happens if we don’t manage to keep the temperature from rising less than 2°C (the target set out in the Paris Climate Agreement)? What happens to the oceans?

Well, we’ll have places on the planet that are uninhabitable by humans. We’ll have no sea ice in the summer in the Arctic, which will change the weather patterns. We might see a major change in what’s called the meridional overturning circulation in the Atlantic. That means the weather in Europe will change dramatically — and change the economy. Wineries will be going north. Island nations will have to move. Species are going to migrate or go extinct. Humans are going to be OK, although there are going to be people, particularly in poor countries, who can’t adapt who will be in trouble.

What do the federal, provincial and municipal governments have to do to protect our oceans from climate change?

We have to invest in adaptation. You need to unharden the coastal structures [by ensuring more natural vegetation and marshes], and plan so that critical infrastructure is not on the coast. Look at Houston. It was idiotic for the chemical plant to have their power systems integrated there, that they didn’t have a way to keep the chemicals safe. That was a complete lack of adaptation to something they knew would happen. Fukushima is another example.

What needs to happen to make us take charge of climate change?

I think the economic impact of these storms we’re having right now is going to be the beginning. [Hurricane] Katrina was big, but the costs weren’t as big as what’s happening now [with Irma and Harvey]. The insurance companies get it. They know exactly the issues and they know exactly the impact. When it becomes an economic issue, it becomes everybody’s issue.

According to the August issue of Nature magazine, all major industrialized nations are failing to meet the pledges they agreed to in the Paris Agreement. Do you see that changing?

I had a discussion with Mark Jacobson, a renewable-energy guy at Stanford. He gave examples from World War II, saying the amount of industrial effort needed to power the U.S. from offshore wind and take it off liquid fuels, is the equivalent of the U.S. building the machines of war during World War II — and that happened in an 18-month period. So those kinds of things give me hope. If, economically, everyone gets it, we’re just going to do it.

It’s economically more favourable to use renewables. Elon Musk’s experiment to power a whole region in Australia [with lithium-ion batteries] is an example. When I first started to be seriously concerned about the fact we need to stop [creating] CO2, I got involved in the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., which just got built last fall. I was one of the two people who started that in Rhode Island when I was there.

With the way the planet is reacting to our being here, are we past the tipping point on climate change? You sound hopeful.

Yes, I’m hopeful. It’s happened in the past, geologically. And we know there’s going to be a lot of stuff that happens, but I wouldn’t call it the tipping point. We’ve put a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate that’s faster than The Big Heat, so we know that the earth is going to have to readjust — and it will take hundreds of thousands of years for it to readjust … A lot of shit’s happened to the earth. We need to work on how to adapt.

So do scientists have to be both scientists and crusaders? Is it urgent?

Yes. It’s past being urgent. 

 This article is from the December 2017/January 2018 issue.