Oceans ’11

Margaret Leinen has moved from the halls of the National Science Foundation to the shores of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, above, part of Florida Atlantic University, and located in Fort Pierce, Fla. Hailed as a top authority on oceans and climate, she was named executive director this year. Image courtesy of Florida Atlantic University

When it comes to climate science, there are optimists, and there are pessimists. Despite her misgivings and first-hand knowledge of all the ominous trends and data, Margaret Leinen ’69 LAS counts herself among the hopeful – and she has a way of gauging whether or not her colleagues are, too.

“I test people’s optimism by asking: ‘If they were alive in 2100, would they be worried about [carbon] emissions?’” she says.

“The optimists say no, we’ll be on to something else by then,” she continues. “I remain optimistic because I think with each year the scientific evidence [for global warming] becomes stronger and stronger.

“I have seen people who were very skeptical coming around to say okay, they see the impacts. … [and] I’m a firm believer in the creativity and genius of people,” Leinen says.

“I think we’re up to it. I just wish we were working on it a little more quickly.”

Given that Leinen has studied everything from the ocean’s biological processes to the chemical composition of deep-water mountain ranges, you could say that she knows this issue from top to bottom. Working in academia, government and private industry, she’s been studying oceans and climate for 40 years. That gives her standing as one of the country’s foremost authorities on the subject and a reliable advocate for science. And that has come in handy, given what a politically charged topic global warming has become.

“There are some legitimate scientists who think the case is still not made,” as to the causes of global warming, Leinen says, “but 99 percent of scientists do. … We are in for a very difficult time because of what we’re doing to the environment.”

“I have huge respect for her integrity,” says Bob Gagosian, head of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and a longtime colleague of Leinen’s. “She is very trustworthy. You can count on her to be real when she tells you something, which is hard to do in her position. At the National Science Foundation, she had to be careful about that because of all the politics. But she’s an unrelenting supporter of the scientific community.”

In February, Leinen became executive director of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, one of just six organizations in the world that operates manned deep-sea research submarines. Before that, she spent a decade in Washington, D.C., working with the National Science Foundation and The Climate Response Fund – and trying to keep contentious debates over global warming focused on science rather than politics.

Leinen moves in some lofty scientific circles. She chaired a recent scientific conference in Washington on “Our Changing Oceans” and also served on the board of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (which made recommendations on how to spend the $500 million in grants that BP – now headed by fellow alumnus Bob Dudley ’78 LAS – paid out after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf). If you sit down for a talk in her office, it’s likely she’ll be interrupted by a phone call from someone like Susan Solomon, who headed up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 2002-08. Email some of Leinen’s colleagues, and you’ll probably hear back from at least one who is doing research someplace like Antarctica.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone in Washington scientific circles whom she doesn’t know.

“She is a great person, very open and fair, and she’s incred-ibly dialed in to the Washington political scene,” says Robert Detrick, director of the Division of Earth Sciences at the NSF.

But Detrick notes other qualities of Leinen as well. “We’re all on a treadmill, looking for the next job that will make us look better,” he says. “That’s not Margaret. She’s more about making a difference. She’s very dedicated to working toward sustainable development and renewable energy.”

It’s somewhat ironic that Leinen’s professional life has been so tied to the ocean, given her background. She’s amused by graduate school applications in which aspirants recall walking on the beach and dreaming of being an oceanographer. Leinen herself never even saw the ocean in person until she was in her 20s.

She grew up in the landlocked heartland environs of Joliet; during her wonder years, Leinen thought she would grow up to practice law.

“I was very much under the spell of [the television legal drama] ‘Perry Mason,’” she recalls with a laugh. “The thing that attracted me about that was Perry Mason was always right … and always helping somebody who was misunderstood.

“I think that’s wrapped up in a deep sense of trying to find the truth,” she says. “People often say science is not about truth, it’s about verification of a hypothesis. I try to find out the real way things are. That’s the part about investigative law that appealed to me.”

For someone inclined toward investigation and reality, science was a natural pursuit. It was Leinen’s good fortune to have engaging high school science teachers, who further encouraged her in that direction. She came to the University of Illinois in the 1960s, a time when there were few women in the sciences.

Her first chemistry course was a dispiriting experience: Only five of 400 students in the class were female, and the male teacher was less than enlightened about that gender gap. He would move the women around to different seats so that the guys would all have a chance to sit next to the girls.

“I nearly flunked out the end of my freshman year,” Leinen says. “I was in these huge classes [that] I was just not connecting with at all, and I didn’t do well my first semester.” After contracting mononucleosis at the end of second semester, she took her finals upon returning in the fall and wound up on academic probation.

It’s worth noting that people who knew Leinen back then have different memories of her years at Illinois.

“Oh, Margaret was always smarter than everybody else,” says Pamela Etter Zull ’69 las, Leinen’s roommate for two years. “There really is nothing she can’t do, and it’s always been that way. And everything she does, she does very well. Even things like sewing.

“It’s kind of disgusting, actually,” she joked.

Ultimately, Leinen went through five different majors during her undergraduate years, with stints in biochemistry, anthropology, microbiology and geography before she finally landed on geology. What sold her was a class field trip to a strip mine and some outcrops along rivers. The weather was bad, and it could have been a miserable experience. Leinen found it life-changing.

“It was a terrible day, raining and cold,” she says. “I’d been in these 400-person chemistry classes where I never even got to talk to the professor. And not only my own geology professor but three or four others were on this trip, just as cold and wet and muddy as we were, sharing their thermoses of coffee with students and talking about what they were doing. It was such a different experience [from what I was used to], and I was totally won over.”

After that, what closed the deal was a chance to work with the late professor emeritus Harold Wanless. For the first time in her academic career, Leinen felt like she was taken seriously.

“He treated me like a real scholar,” she says of Wanless, “as though I knew what I was doing and talking about. He was making a set of big maps, and he had them spread out on a big table.

“I was terrified I’d make a mistake,” Leinen recalls, “[but] he was teaching me how to read a paper and where to draw a line on a map. … No one had ever treated me like that, which was a wonderful thing to do for an undergraduate.”

There’s a reason Margaret Leinen is smiling – she used this very basket to dredge the first samples of a field of hydrothermal vents that she discovered in 1983 in the waters off of Washington state. Image courtesy of Margaret Leinen

There’s a reason Margaret Leinen is smiling – she used this very basket to dredge the first samples of a field of hydrothermal vents that she discovered in 1983 in the waters off of Washington state.
Image courtesy of Margaret Leinen

Leinen continued her graduate work at Oregon State University, where her interest in geology went underwater. She says that whenever conversation turned to rocks from the deep ocean, someone would admit that they didn’t know much about that – which was enough to get Leinen to switch to oceanography.

“I thought I’d go off and study oceanography, learn all about that, come back and be the expert in geology that knew something about the ocean,” she says. “And I never got back to geology.”

Leinen’s master’s thesis traced 50 million years of climate change in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, as revealed by studying sediments. Then it was on to the University of Rhode Island for her doctorate, which refined that inquiry further.

Leinen did most of her research during the 1970s and ’80s, when there weren’t many women out there doing field work. She was a pioneer, but not everyone took that well. A 1978 oceanography trip to sea put her on a ship with a boatswain who was very much a crusty character. He drew a chalk mark in front of the boat’s fantail and declared, “No women past
the line.”

Leinen’s protests fell on deaf ears. “The captain backed him up, … so I had to work through another scientist,” she says. “It was not much fun.”

Leinen achieved a research breakthrough in 1983 when she discovered a field of hydrothermal vents about 250 miles off of the coast of Washington state. (These phenomena occur where the Earth’s plates separate and high-temperature vents spew out hot water and sediments, creating volcanic rock formations that serve as sites for complex deep-sea ecosystems.)

A year later, she returned and explored the area in a submarine. “There were plumes of black water, things crystallizing out of the water as it came out to build up these big spires and peaks of sulfite minerals,” she says. “It was festooned with all these exotic creatures – big crabs and tubeworms and other things. That was amazing. A lot of people spend a lot of years at sea and never see anything like that.”

THE CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGE Leinen spent 25 years at the University of Rhode Island, serving as researcher, professor, dean and vice provost (she’s not been to sea on a research trip since 1993). In 2000, Leinen left Rhode Island for Washington to work as assistant director for geosciences and coordinator of environmental research and education for the National Science Foundation.

Most of Leinen’s seven-year tenure there coincided with the George W. Bush administration, which put her in the middle of a pitched battle over climate change. By then, evidence from numerous scientific studies – including her own research – pointed toward global warming as a growing problem. And so
it fell to Leinen to try and convince skeptics in Congress and the White House that this was something real that had to be addressed.

“That was a very interesting time,” Leinen understates. “The Bush Administration was very skeptical, … and their official position coming in was that the case had not been made.

“There was quite an evolution in their thinking,” she continues. “There was a sense that the country would innovate itself out of problems through the private sector finding new ways to use energy.

“I believe it will take a very substantial revolution in the way we use energy.”

This is the part of the conversation that will put anyone’s optimism to the test, Leinen’s included, because the cold hard facts of climate change are scary indeed. The situation is already quite dire, and according to many experts, it’s going to get worse – potentially a lot worse – before it gets better.

Currently, the Earth’s atmosphere has 391 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That’s enough to cause the effects we’re seeing now, including significant melting of the polar icecaps. But the truly alarming part might still lie ahead because we are putting far more carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere than can be quickly absorbed. Even if humanity stopped all carbon emissions completely, an obvious impossibility, the acidification of the oceans will continue and the climate will continue to warm.

“If everything on the table [at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference] had been agreed to and implemented, we would still end this century with twice as much CO2? in the atmosphere,” Leinen says with a weary sigh, “from 387 parts per million to over 700. That’s how big a problem it is.

“We’re already seeing climate impacts from 387 – what happens at 450 or 700?”

The rising acidification of oceans – thanks to carbon emissions – is one of the most profound and troubling issues. In the distant past there were times when the atmosphere had even more carbon dioxide than it does now, without significantly acidifying the oceans. But the concentration of carbon dioxide grew at a slower pace back then, giving the seas more time to reach a new equilibrium.

“The most obvious thing is what happens to everything in the ocean that makes a shell out of calcium carbonate,” Leinen says. “[It gets to] the point where they can’t make their shells.”

Wait. It gets worse.

“The really big thing coming is coral reefs,” she continues. “By the end of this century, there might be a few places where coral still exists. Most will be gone. We’ll reach a critical point where we lose a lot of them by mid-century, 40 years from now.

“Even if we completely stopped emitting carbon today, we’re not at equilibrium, and it would go on over the next century.”

Leinen predicts that eventually a number of reefs will be chosen to save, like underwater game preserves. They’ll be protected by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it, or by treating the surrounding water to make it less acidic – the rough equivalent of dumping Alka Seltzer into the ocean. That will probably have unforeseen consequences because, when it comes to the environment, every action seems to have multiple reactions.

Yet it still might be worth the risks because reefs are such an essential component of the oceans’ ecosystem. Coral reefs create lagoons around islands and protect coastlines from erosion. They also support an enormous amount of biological diversity, which has many direct scientific uses.

“All these weird little plants and animals have evolved various tricks to survive – specialized chemicals that allow them to repel the advances of some other organisms,” Leinen says. “We’ve learned a lot about adhesives from threads that attach mussels to rocks, and a tremendous number of the drugs we use to test for disease come from marine organisms.”

Trying to de-acidify parts of the ocean would be just one component of a wide-ranging strategy to cope with climate change on land and sea. Another major piece of the puzzle will be decreasing future carbon emissions by using alternative energy sources (especially solar power), as well as developing technology to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Leinen has been working on that, too. Before forming The Climate Response Fund in 2009, she spent two years with a private company called Climos, founded by her son Dan Whaley ’90 las. Climos supports research on projects including ocean fertilization (using iron to stimulate biological productivity, which increases carbon sequestration); The Climate Response Fund funds conferences on technological solutions, such as the use of reflective sulfur and clouds to decrease global warming.

“[Things like that are] such a third rail that people don’t even want to think about it,” Leinen says. “Scientists are horrified at the idea that it’s come to this. We could be looking at environmental impacts so severe, it’s better to take a chance on something.”

Taken as a whole, it looks like an impossible challenge for the planet. Nevertheless, Leinen still believes that humanity can and will solve it. But there’s no time to waste.

“I like to tell skeptics who say that scientists get more money by generating speculative data to look at the USDA’s hardiness-zone maps for the U.S.,” Leinen says.

“When I was a little girl, I’d plant flower boxes, and the seed packets would tell you when to plant with these maps based on the number of freezing spring days, summer temperatures, date of first frost,” she says. “My area of Illinois has moved up a whole hardiness zone – one warmer now than it used to be 40 years ago.”

And plants, Leinen infers, don’t come under political pressure or face funding crises or confront issues of credibility. “They don’t get grants or write papers,” she says.

“They just grow.”

Menconi is the music critic for the Raleigh (North Carolina) News & Observer.