ST PETER — The health of the ocean could seem like a remote topic to Minnesotans, but it’ll be the task of this year’s Nobel Conference to make it relevant.
The two-day conference, called “Our Global Ocean,” will ask what responsibilities we have toward those distant shores, from what we eat to the energy we consume. It will seek to tap our imagination about the undiscovered frontier of the deep ocean. And it aims to engage our curiosity about how ocean life manages to thrive in cold, dark depths.
The 48th annual Nobel Conference will be held at Gustavus Adolphus College on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 2 and 3.
Climate change will be another theme; two of the eight speakers are experts in how the ocean and climate affect each other.
Conference Director Charles Niederriter said organizers have purposely avoided a global warming conference — believing it would be more about controversy than science — but have found ways to work it into recent topics.
One connection with this year’s topic is that the ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs more carbon dioxide. (The conference’s use of the singular word “ocean,” rather than the plural, is a choice meant to reflect the global nature of the topic.)
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral reef expert from Australia, is worried the acidification will kill corals and drive fish species to extinction.
Chris Sabine, an oceanographer, co-wrote two papers in the journal Science on how much human-derived carbon dioxide was stored in the ocean and how it’s affecting marine life. For this and other work, he shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the International Panel on Climate Change.
The theme of ocean stewardship also will be running strongly through the conference.
Niederriter said the ocean is a global resource that often gets less attention than it should, in part because there is no entity that controls it.
A prime example is fisheries, where any individual can profit by over-fishing while impoverishing everyone else.
Carl Safina, who has worked on fisheries policy and is now an environmental activist, will discuss what the average person can do, which is mostly paying attention to what sort of seafood you eat, said Joel Carlin, a Gustavus associate professor and co-chair of the conference.
Safina may be most well known for the PBS series “Saving the Ocean.”
“The thing about seafood is people tend to eat top predators” such as tuna, Carlin said.
Considering predators are much more rare than prey, that’s a bad sign — imagine if people craved wolf instead of cow.
Luckily for the ocean’s top predators, it is typically illegal to eat shark in the United States, Carlin said.
Earlier this year, a 593-pound tuna sold for $735,000 to a Japanese sushi restaurant. That sort of demand, he said, will overwhelm rules limiting how many valuable fish can be caught.
“The real way to control this is by (limiting) demand,” he said.
Marine scientist Barbara Block studies large predator fish like tuna and sharks in an effort to learn how to keep them around in the future. Her California lab stocks live tuna to learn about the biology of the fish.
The conference’s other co-chair, associate geology professor Julie Bartley, said speaker Maya Tolstoy, a marine geology and geophysics scientist, studied the 2009 BP oil spill as well as the effect of artificial noise on ocean life.
Tolstoy studies the sea floor, which is far from a simple bathtub-like flatness, Bartley said.
“Every time we’ve looked at it, it’s turned out to be more complicated than we thought,” she said.
Minnesota anglers should be able to relate to the talk by William Fitzgerald, an expert on mercury contamination.
Niederriter, the conference director, said mercury is released into the air when power plants burn coal. A disturbing feature of mercury pollution is that it contaminates air and wildlife thousands of miles from where it originates.
“We’re used to considering our local impact on the environment,” he said, but not as much on what we do to far-flung areas.
In one important way, though, mercury pollution is easier to study than greenhouse gas pollution because there is little naturally occurring methylmercury, he said. Considering we all use electric power, this makes for a clear example of pollution affecting the whole ocean, reflecting a global responsibility to fix it.
A philosophical reflection on science is a staple of Nobel Conferences, and this year that role is filled by author Kathleen Moore.
Niederriter said she will help attendees appreciate the ocean, which can seem distant, almost other-worldly.
Explorer and oceanographer David Gallo, most famous for his exploration of the Titanic, will likely discuss the pragmatic difficulties in undersea work.
Niederriter notes that, in some ways, the surface of Mars is better-explored than the ocean.
One improvement at the conference this year is a more robust live-streaming operation, Niederriter said. The feature was available in past years, but is slated to be more sophisticated this time around.
There are no Nobel laureates this year, which Niederriter said is partly due to the topic; there are no Nobel prizes in oceanography.
Tickets are still available for the conference.
On the Web: For tickets, curriculum guides and more information, visit www.gustavus.edu/events/nobelconference.
The 2013 topic for Nobel is a combination of physics and astronomy, called “The Universe at its Limits.”