Elizabeth Gross's small, nondescript office on the second
floor of Olin Hall seems an unlikely vortex for scientific issues
of global magnitude.
But her modest two-person staff is actually at the center of worldwide oceanographic research, work touching on everything from global warming to the mysterious contours of the seafloor and vital changes in commercial fish stocks. Gross and her assistant, Wesley Anne Ross, run the headquarters for an international organization called SCOR, the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research.
"It has a very good reputation internationally for taking the lead in dealing with the hot topics in oceanography," said Gross, SCOR's executive director since 1980.
The private, non-profit organization doesn't actually conduct research; it assembles international working groups of scientists to bring important issues to the surface. Those think tanks then may recommend that certain research be funded by agencies like the National Science Foundation, resulting in projects that attract scientists from around the world and facilitating international collaborations.
"Scientists are willing to submit their data into an international data set because they know that if they do that, they all have access to other people's data," Gross said.
Because SCOR is a non-governmental entity, it is able to skirt sensitive political situations in the interests of research. Scientists from the 40 countries that belong to the organization are able to interact even if their governments do not.
"So they were able to pull together South Africans, Communist Chinese, Americans, Russians, British, French, when you couldn't do that at a governmental level," said Thomas Osborn, an oceanographer who has been involved with the organization at the national and international levels.
"SCOR is able to say that all of its meetings are open to all members," said Osborn, a Hopkins professor in the departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Mechanical Engineering.
About a dozen working groups, each with about 10 scientists, are currently exploring issues such as the possible dangers posed by toxic algal blooms, how fishing methods might be affecting marine ecosystems, whether rising sea levels might bring about changes to the coastlines and how the coral reefs are responding to global change.
"The coral reefs are thought to be a very early indicator of global warming," Gross said.
One group meeting in October at Johns Hopkins is dealing with ocean bathymetry, or the accurate measurement of the sea's changing depths.
"You might think that we know the bottom of the ocean pretty well; in fact, we probably know it to about 10 percent of the detail that we have for the surface of Venus," Gross said.
But more precise measurements are needed for a variety of purposes, including oil exploration and understanding global circulation patterns. Better bathymetric data are particularly critical for a region between Antarctica and the tip of South America, a spot that exerts crucial influences on ocean circulation patterns. New data would enable scientists to design more accurate computer models for predicting the circulation patterns, Gross said.
"This working group will identify the scientific needs and make recommendations for programs to go out and get detailed bathymetry," she said.
In addition to the working groups, the 40-year-old organization also forms scientific committees for a small number of "global-change" studies that explore the long-term consequences of shifting climatic conditions.
"These are essentially decades-long international research programs looking at the effects of climate change," Gross said.
One such study seeks to uncover detailed information about a major ecological process: the global cycle in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and used by both terrestrial and aquatic organisms for respiration, releasing oxygen and producing food along the way. In nature, carbon dioxide is released by such events as forest fires and volcanic eruptions and is exhaled by humans and animals. But people have artificially increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and torching forests to make room for agriculture and development. The additional carbon dioxide may cause global warming by trapping solar radiation that normally is released into space.
Scientists want to know how the unnaturally high levels of carbon dioxide might affect the carbon cycle.
"What is the capability of the ocean to buffer this process, to absorb a lot of that carbon dioxide, and how does that extra carbon dioxide in the ocean impact its functioning?" Gross asked. "Some of the conclusions will definitely have implications for policy, when we understand how the carbon cycle works in the oceans and what the role of the oceans is in absorbing anthropogenic carbon dioxide."
Another large-scale project aims to understand how changing climate might affect ocean circulation and wind patterns, possibly altering the abundance of commercially important fish. The issue touches on the potential influences of global warming because changing ocean temperatures have an impact on circulation patterns, Gross said.
Because the plankton that the larval fish eat and the distribution of larval fish themselves are dependent on circulation and wind patterns, those factors may play a major role in the dynamics of fish populations, Gross said.
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