UH Professor Speaks on Dangers Oceans Face

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Photo credit: Kassandra Fochtman / Ka Leo O Hawai‘i

Article courtesy of Ieva Byatautite | September 29, 2014 | The Voice Ka Leo | Shared as educational material

David Karl |Oceanography professor David Karl spoke on Phosphorus pollution in the ocean  on Sept. 25 as part of Waikīkī Aquarium’s Distinguished Lecture Series

One of the biggest problems the oceans face is an overwhelming amount of phosphorus being washed into the ocean from fertilized farmlands, said Oceanography professor David Karl, Ph.D.

“We are worried about plastic bags (polluting the ocean), and while plastic is an issue I wouldn’t say it’s a first order of issue. Nutrients are more important,” Karl said. “These issues are so complex and there is so much noise surrounding it. People don’t want to admit the facts and sometimes they don’t even know the facts.”

Karl, who is also the director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography, spoke to a large crowd that packed into the Mamiya Theatre at the St. Louis School on Sept. 25. His lecture was titled, “The Contemporary Challenge of the Sea: Science, Society and Sustainability.”


Phosphorus is a chemical element needed for the conversion of light energy to chemical energy during photosynthesis. It started being used heavily during the Green Revolution as a fertilizer for crops. Due to its high demand, phosphorus supplies are now running low, and the majority of it has ended up in the oceans, according to Karl.

“This led to phosphorus pollution in our waterway. The excess phosphorus caused the creation of blooms in fresh water and coastal marine environments. And now we have a different problem – we are running out of phosphorus,” Karl said.

A depletion of the Earth’s phosphorus supply is alarming because there is no industrial source of phosphorus.

“What’s in the planet, in the rocks, is all we have. This is a crisis that very few scientists, policy makers or the general public is tracking,” Karl said.


Karl and his team are working on a solution – one that would address phosphorus depletion crisis, the phosphorus ocean contamination problem and promote sustainability.

The cool water air conditioning project would pump up cold, deep-sea water from the ocean floor. It would then be used in a heat exchange, and the cold water would be pumped through the buildings of downtown Honolulu. This process would save energy and fresh water and it would also capture the excess phosphorus resting in deep water.

“If this project is successful, we could recover the phosphorus and reuse it for fertilizer, industry, we could even sell it to maintain our research enterprise,” Karl said

This is currently an ongoing project on campus, and so far, there is no prediction on whether the project will be successful, according to Karl.

Norma-Jean Driscolli, a Leeward Community College student interested in oceanography, enjoyed the lecture but felt it was compact.

“There was so much he talked about that I didn’t even know. Before the lecture, I was only aware of the issues very vaguely,” Driscolli said.

Karl finished his lecture urging people, especially the younger generation, to seek solutions and not be afraid to step out of boundaries and comfort zones.

“So do not be afraid to dream,” Karl said. Especially the younger people in the crowd, you have your whole lives ahead of you and you can make an impact on your lives and the lives of your children.”

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