Coccolithophore Relief: An Art and Science Interrogation of Ocean Acidification

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Jenny Rock
Lynn Taylor
Ro J Allen


Organisms that remove carbon from the world’s carbon cycle are becoming ever more important as we try to constrain our carbon emissions to slow climate change. Marine phytoplankton, like coccolithophores, are responsible for 50 percent of global carbon fixation. Through photosynthesis, which also produces oxygen as a by-product, they fix carbon dioxide throughout their lives in the surface waters of the ocean. Even in their death, they help remove carbon from the system. Coccolithophores make armoured plates (coccoliths, hereafter referred to as ‘liths’) from calcium carbonate, which together form a sort of external skeleton for each organism. When they die, they sink and join bottom sediments, in effect exporting and burying carbon in deep-sea sediments.

We decided to share the story of coccolithophores, including their important environmental role and their sensitivity to ocean acidification, with the public. We intentionally developed a project involving social arts practice to help people reflect on the importance of these small things. This included the beauty of the tiny liths that make up the  coccolithophore’s amour, the importance of each little lith to collectively make a healthy organism (that in turn has an important global role), and the effect of our individual small actions contributing to climate change. Engaging communities in social arts practice, by involving hands-on making with cognitive activity, gives time and space for such critical
reflection.5 Joining key features of the scientific narrative with congruent aspects of the art-making can serve to reinforce understanding and potential behaviour change.

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Author Biographies

Jenny Rock, Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago.

Jenny Rock is a lecturer in the Centre for Science  Communication, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Lynn Taylor

Lynn Taylor lives and works from the Lighthouse Studio, Portobello, Dunedin.

Ro J Allen, Department of Botany, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Ro J Allen is a postgraduate student in the Department of Botany, University of Otago, Dunedin.