S.1 E.7 Mercury in the Water

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus chemistry and environmental studies professor Jeff Jeremiason.
Posted on June 15th, 2020 by

Jeff Jeremiason, professor of chemistry and director of environmental studies at Gustavus, on the science and politics of climate change, researching rising levels of mercury in lakes, rivers, and wetlands with students, and the impressive benefits of majoring in environmental studies.

Season 1, Episode 7: Mercury in the Water

Transcript:

Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus has produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Climate change and its effects were of course well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic. We have learned that we weren’t ready for the pandemic. Are we ready for climate change and the effects of climate change, both short and long-term? All the more reason to speak with today’s guest, my faculty colleague Jeff Jeremiason. Jeff is a professor of chemistry and director of the environmental studies program at Gustavus.

A graduate of another fine liberal arts college, Augustana College in Sioux falls, South Dakota, not that far away, Jeff earned his doctorate in environmental engineering at the University of Minnesota. He teaches a range of courses in chemistry and environmental studies at Gustavus while also pursuing a research agenda of his own, and with students, focused on mercury in rivers, lakes, wetlands, and even the Gulf of Mexico. All of which we’ll get to shortly. Jeff, it’s great to be podcasting with you.

Jeff Jeremiason:
Thank you, Greg.

Greg Kaster:
Good to talk, even amid this pandemic. Let’s end at the beginning, in a way, since I’m a historian I like to do that. And if you wouldn’t mind telling us a little bit about your path to becoming a professor of chemistry. I mean, when you were a little kid, were you doing chem experiments while the other kids were playing cops and robbers? I don’t know. How did you become what you are? When did you know you were interested in science and chemistry specifically?

Jeff Jeremiason

Jeff Jeremiason:
I knew from a young age that I was interested in science. I grew up in a very small town at a small school, a farm, and I spent a lot of time outdoors and that’s probably the biggest effect on my choice of vocation. I was particularly interested in doing work that was outside, but yet had some kind of academic challenge to it. And I really liked chemistry when I was in high school, so I became a chemistry major and a math major at Augustana College. And I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do coming out of college, but one afternoon during chemistry lab, we were sent to the library to do some research. And being senior chemistry majors, we stopped off at one of our houses and hung out for a little bit and there was a graduate brochure and I started thumbing through it.

I can’t remember what school it was from, but I saw environmental engineering and I read something about studying lakes and that just clicked with me right away. I was like, okay, I’m going to school and I’m going to study lakes. I really didn’t think I was going to be a professor, I just knew that that was something that interested me, and it sounded like a pretty good option. And then I just really found my niche. I really liked the science that I got to do in graduate school. And I just got into doing a research.

I loved the research, doing research on pollutants in the Great Lakes and in other lake systems. And then after I did a post doc and I was working for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, studying lakes and mercury in lakes, and I then was asked to teach an environmental science class at the University of Minnesota. And I really liked that as well. And we ended up with the state having to go on strike that year, and then while we’re on strike, I started looking for jobs and I saw this Gustavus job open for someone for the environmental studies program and was like, oh, I qualify for that. And so I applied for it and I got it. So that’s how I ended up at Gustavus, and that has been almost 20 years now. And it’s been a great career.

Greg Kaster:
That’s great. And I always, somehow in these podcasts, find a connection. So technically I’m a labor historian and I like the fact that it was a labor management conflict that brought you to Gustavus. What exactly is environmental engineering? How would you define that?

Jeff Jeremiason:
So environmental engineering, it really, historically, grew out of a water treatment. So it came after World War II, when we started having practical problems like the rivers and the lakes were getting green in urban areas, there was horrible smells in urban areas because we’re basically pumping raw sewage into the area of water bodies without treating it. And so engineers, it started as an engineering issue that, okay, how do we treat this water?

And so water treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants were developed. And those same principles that apply to designing, say a wastewater treatment plant, really are basic environmental chemistry principles that would apply to studying any environmental system. And so it evolved to studying natural systems, and so now environment engineers study all natural systems along with the engineered systems. So studying lakes and air pollution right along with water treatment technologies is what environmental engineers do.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:
Thank you, that’s very interesting and obviously of concern to all of us since we all depend on water for life. What about, let me ask you another definitional question, what about climate change? How would you define that? How do you define that? And what about the differences between speaking about climate change versus global warming?

Jeff Jeremiason:
So climate change, it’s all a matter of a semantics, I guess. So climate change, of course, has occurred throughout the history of the earth. So I would say that global warming, which, it’s been all tied up in political battles and such, but the rate at which the climate is changing over the last 150 years is like nothing we’ve seen before in human history. So it’s just different. We know why the climate changes, we know why it’s changed in the past, we know why it’s changing now. So climate change, I guess, is just … I guess it’s just the change in the temperature of the climate and the change in other factors of the climate. And global warming, I’d say, is more of the anthropogenic cause for the current climate change.

Greg Kaster:
That makes sense. And so some of it again, I mean you’re right, climate change itself is not new. That’s a part of earth and life, but it’s especially the rapidity and the human causes, I guess, of that rapidity is that fair to say?

Jeff Jeremiason:
Right, so the human influence. We’ve grown to understand that humans are influencing the global climate, whereas that was historically not thought to be possible, that we were just too small and that nature was too big to have us impact it. But, yeah, so some early scientists in the 1800’s and early 1900’s started hypothesizing that, oh, taking all this carbon out of the ground in the form of coal, originally could lead to an increase in temperature. And a great Swedish scientist, Arrhenius, was one of the first to hypothesize that.

Greg Kaster:
That’s interesting. I didn’t know that, I didn’t know about … That was the early 20th century, did you say? When was that?

Jeff Jeremiason:
So he was, in the 1890s he had written a paper, I think that’s the right date, he had written a paper about carbon going into the atmosphere. And since it was known by then that it was a greenhouse gas, that it absorbed heat released from the earth surface, that he hypothesized that it could lead to climate change. But the problem was, we couldn’t measure … No one had a good way to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which seems pretty simple now, but there was not a good method to do that.

Greg Kaster:
Got it. That makes sense. What about the fact that we don’t seem to be ready for what’s ahead? And I mean, I don’t know how much we even know, you as a scientist know better than I do. I guess we can’t know exactly what’s ahead, but even just the last 10 years or so. I mean, the summers seem hotter. The wildfires in Australia and California. Are we at all ready for what’s ahead? And is there, I guess a related question which I struggle with, probably you too. I think a lot of us who think about this, whether we’re scientists or not is, how to avoid just throwing up one’s hands in despair. It’s too late. There’s nothing we can do.

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yeah. I mean, we’ve known for the last, I’d say three or four decades that climate change was occurring. It was due to humans. And what I’d say is that the effects of the change in climate have been greater than what was expected. That is to say that the initial scientific understanding and the models that were developed have been pretty good about predicting the overall temperature changes of the earth, but the effects of that temperature change, those have been greater than we expected. For example, it wasn’t expected that the Arctic would melt so quickly. It wasn’t expected that we would see this increase in storms and increase in fire.

I mean, that was all expected to happen in the future, but that future is now. And so we are seeing those things, and I think it’s a societal problem and this is why the Environmental Studies major is so valuable, even for scientists, it’s that it’s a scientific problem that we know the solutions to, but socially and politically we can’t implement the solutions. And so it relates to the current COVID epidemic and that we weren’t prepared for this problem that we knew was coming. And so same thing with climate change, we know it’s coming, we’ve known it’s been coming, but we’ve continued to put off doing anything about it.

Greg Kaster:
You said it well. You articulate exactly what I feel, and coming at it as a historian, as well as just an ordinary person, that, yes, we know the problem. We even know how to address the problem, but it’s the lack of political will. It’s a political problem. So with our liberal arts caps on, we can certainly say it’s a highly interdisciplinary problem. What about, we should mention, by the way, this reminds me that last fall, the annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus, which is one of our signature events of course, was focused on climate change. And you must have been excited about that and very involved in that. Any key takeaways from that conference?

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yeah, well, last year’s conference was specifically on climate change, but if you look back the last 10 or 12 years, many of the conference themes have been climate change. From water, we had an energy conference, the oceans, soil, all those had strong climate components to them. We just never had one that was exactly, 100%, dedicated to climate change. And I think we saw this, the connections from last year was … I think what came out for me, the very impactful talks from an indigenous person, and I think one of the scientists even said it, it’s like, well, we don’t need science to tell us anything more. We just need to act, we need to do something. Scientists can scream all they want and come up with new data, but all we’re doing is documenting the change in the climate better and better.

Greg Kaster:
Right, and in saying that the other part of the context, and I guess the problem is whether it’s a so-called war on science, but the skepticism and even outright hostility towards science. And of course, climate change denial would be, I would argue, would be a part of that. Do you experience any of that in your teaching? Do you experience any of that skepticism about science and about climate change? Or are you teaching mostly true believers?

Jeff Jeremiason:
There are some students that are skeptical, and as scientists we want students to be skeptical. We want them to keep an open mind. So as they’re learning, we want them to be skeptical of climate change. You can learn a lot of science by trying to understand climate and how the climate functions on earth. There’s lot to be learned there, but there’s a difference between keeping an open mind and I guess your brain just sliding out the side of your head. You don’t start from zero. I mean, we know a lot. We know a lot. And to say, to always be skeptical, is a virtue. It’s cynical, and the people who are saying that there’s hardly any scientists that would say that are just trying to delay any kind of action.

Greg Kaster:
That is what my sense is, but yeah, I hadn’t thought about the cynicism part, but you’re right. I mean, that’s where I come down. I have stopped, I’m not a scientist, obviously I’m not talking to other scientists, but of the few people I know, including a couple of family members who are just highly skeptical. Yes, it’s climate change, but there’s always been climate change. And I just find the evidence to be overwhelming, as you’re suggesting. And so I’d rather focus on what could be done rather than trying to persuade those people.

Jeff Jeremiason:
[crosstalk 00:16:02] I try not to get involved with those. It’s like, we just work towards action. I mean, it’s a willful ignorance and anything that is said is not going to change some people’s mind. And so yeah, if you look at the evidence it is overwhelming, but you have to look at the evidence.

Greg Kaster:
Right. What about, I’ve been impressed also, and you know more about this than I do, the efforts on our campus by students, and some faculty as well, to address issues of climate change, or the environment more broadly. Could you talk a little bit about some of those at Gustavus?

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yeah. So efforts to address climate change on campus is a great educational activity that … It’s not just Environmental Studies students, it’s students from all walks of life on campus that are involved in the environmental efforts on campus. And these students get real practice in leadership, we’ve seen some incredible leaders come out, and it’s a great education. And that Gustavus really is a microcosm of the world, in that, we want to have new buildings, we want to have comfortable buildings, we want to have attractive grounds. And there’s more input to decisions than just saying, oh, we need to lower CO2 emissions the most.

Jeff Jeremiason:
So changing our whole infrastructure of our buildings would be immensely costly, generating our own electricity or generating our own fuels, immensely costly. And so to actually lower our carbon footprint, Gustavus is facing the same challenges that countries, states, cities, et cetera are facing. And so when the students get involved with trying to change some things about how Gustavus operates, trying to get renewable energy on campus, working on waste streams, composting, getting the cafeteria to think about what they’re serving. All these things are great ways for students get involved.

And the students, particularly in the last few years, have been incredibly successful in actually getting things done. We just committed to reducing our energy use 25% last year, which is going to take a lot of effort. And that was in response to student actions. The students have, they took over a faculty meeting last year and they’re demanding that we include environmental sustainability in our general education curriculum. And even though it was at the end of our curriculum discussions, that is going to, hopefully that’s going to be included in general education. And if it’s not, the students have already been talking about how they will continue to demand that. So yes, lots of opportunities for the students to get involved. It’s great for Gustavus and it’s great experience for the students.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah, that’s all exciting and I find that hopeful. I also like what you said about the opportunities to develop leadership skills, not just to understand. And really it’s also about, as you say so well, it’s a microcosm of countries and it’s a microcosm of the state as well. I mean, so these students are essentially lobbying the Gustavus administration and the faculty. I mean, they’re doing political work as well as their scientific work. All very interesting, important, and I think for a lot of us faculty, hopeful. What about your own research? Let’s talk a little bit about that. And I know you do research with students, include that as well. You’ve done a lot of research with students. But talk to us a little bit about your research. I think you have several projects, if I’m remembering correctly [crosstalk 00:00:20:21]. Go ahead.

Jeff Jeremiason:
I’ve been doing a lot of research on mercury. I’ve been happy to get some projects going that link mercury and climate change. So mercury, as an issue, in that we have advisories for consumption of fish in Minnesota. And the state of Minnesota is so unique ecologically with three major biomes in our state, and we have very different types of lakes and rivers throughout the state. And so a lot of my research is focused on how these ecosystems operate differently, and how that impacts the mercury that eventually gets into the fish.

So it’s more of understanding the ecosystem. We understand the basics of how mercury cycles, but we can’t look at a lake and say, oh, this lake will be really high in mercury, with 100% confidence. This lake will be really low. We know in general that lakes in southern Minnesota have low levels of mercury in the fish. And we know that lakes in general in northern Minnesota have higher levels of mercury despite having the same amount of mercury being deposited. So the mercury cycle and the conversion of mercury that comes from the atmosphere to an organic form of mercury that accumulates in the fish is what I study.

I also study ecosystem changes over time. And this has been an exciting area of study that we’ve been working on in some peatlands and some bogs. And we’re looking at how the bog is changing over time and how that relates to how it transports metals, including mercury and lead, out of that bog and how it processes those metals. So ecosystems in Minnesota, particularly northern Minnesota, have been warming very quickly. And that is leading to shifts in forestry, in the trees that are growing.

It’s also changing, what people don’t think as much about bogs, but bogs are important sources of carbon, are important sinks of carbon. They take up carbon from the atmosphere and we’re seeing some changes in carbon export out of this one particular bog that I’ve been studying. And so, relating the increase in lead flux, or lead flow out of that ecosystem, as it relates to carbon. Changes in carbon cycling in the ecosystem.

Greg Kaster:
And so is this mercury … I mean, is any of this mercury naturally occurring? It’s maybe a stupid question from an historian, or is this all mercury, mostly mercury, coming from industrial runoff?

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yeah, there is natural mercury, but the two things that have happened; we’ve increased the amount of mercury that is in the atmosphere by at least a factor of four, relative to natural releases of mercury. And then the other thing that we’ve done is, we’ve changed the dynamics of ecosystems to, in most cases that have been studied, we changed more of that mercury that’s deposited into organic forms of mercury, which then accumulate in organisms. So we’ve increased the amount of mercury that’s being deposited to the landscape, and in general, we’ve also increased the amount of that mercury that gets transported eventually into biological organisms, like fish.

Greg Kaster:
Okay. And am I right, it’s just occurring to me that, I don’t mean to be political at all, but didn’t the Trump administration just ease up restrictions on mercury?

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yes. The main source of mercury in the US in recent years, there used to be a lot of products that contained mercury and a lot of medical devices that contained mercury, and we’ve phased those out. Like mercury in thermometers basically has been phased out. But mercury, there’s small amounts of mercury in coal. And when you burn coal, that’s the number one source of mercury to the atmosphere. And so there’s regulations in place on coal fired power plants, and yes, the Trump administration rolled those back as being too cumbersome during the COVID pandemic that we’re in right now.

Greg Kaster:
Okay. Yeah, that’s what I was talking … And I was just kind of chuckling to myself when I said we don’t mean to be political, but of course we’ve already stipulated that all of this is political, as this shows. What about, can you say a little bit about, you’ve done a lot of research with students. I mean in the past and ongoing. Maybe just choose a couple of students and tell us a little bit about what they’ve done with you, and for those who graduated, what they’re doing now.

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yeah. Of the research students, a lot of those are the students that are planning on going to graduate school. And I’ll just mention a couple, one of the students, Allison [Agather 00:00:26:02], she was a 2013 grad, recently finished her PhD in Environmental Science and is now actually working on environmental policy for the next couple of years through a grant. And she’s working in Washington DC, but she ended up studying mercury in the oceans, amongst other things, and she went on cruises, oceanic cruises, on many of the oceans. And she sent me some melted snow from the exact North Pole, and she was sending out pictures of polar bears while she was on a cruise in the Arctic Ocean, on an icebreaker going to the North Pole. So she got her PhD in Environmental Science.

Other students have gone to work on climate change related things in graduate school. I have one student who went to, basically, a chemical and environmental engineering graduate program at Washington University in St Louis. And he is studying aerosol particles in the atmosphere, so these would be really small particles in the atmosphere. And these really small particles actually shade the earth a bit and cool the earth, but if they’re black particles, like soot particles, they shade the earth but they also absorb heat so they can actually warm.

So it depends on the color. The real simple message is, it depends on the color of these particles. And so this person, who was an environmental studies and chemistry major, was very interested in climate change. And so now he studies how these particles age in the atmosphere and how that changes their impacts on whether they absorb or release heat. And so that’s a couple examples for you, but I’ve been fortunate to work with dozens and dozens of students over the years in the summer and during the school year. And they gain valuable experience in the lab. Some of them have written papers and many have gone to conferences throughout the US to present their work.

Greg Kaster:
It’s just terrific. And I always find speaking to my colleagues about that kind of work. It’s so inspiring. I liked the first student you mentioned too, the alum who’s combining the science and policy, which again makes me think of not only how important that is, but how wonderful it is to have a Liberal Arts education that prepares you to do just that. If that’s a path you choose. What about your elevator pitch? Or really pitches, I guess, for chemistry and environmental studies?

Jeff Jeremiason:
Well, for chemistry, if I talk to a prospective students, I usually tell them, you’re set if you get a chemistry major at Gustavus. It’s hard not to get a job if you have a chemistry major, there’s so many things you can do. And there’s such a demand for chemists, just to working in laboratories, analyzing samples. So if you learn a few basic laboratory skills, you can get a job. And then really the sky’s the limit with a chemistry major in terms of if you want to go on to graduate school or medical school, great preparation for both of those.

So the chemistry major, it’s a tough major. Have to put in a lot of time. And chemistry is maddeningly complicated sometimes, but beautiful in its elegance. So that’s what I often tell chemistry’s students. Environmental Studies, I would say it’s the ideal Liberal Arts major. And I really encourage our science majors, if they’re majoring in biology, geology, consider doing an Environmental Studies major with that as well. Just because it broadens your horizons, and if you’re writing, which a lot of students end up writing reports or papers, on the science you have to be able to give the context of why this is important. And you have to understand the historical and social aspects of whatever environmental issue you’re dealing with.

So those are my pitches for the science type students, but Environmental Studies, I mean, we just have so many. There’s so many paths that Environmental Studies students go, from educators to consultants, scientists, engineers, activists. It’s hard to say. This is the career you go into when you get an Environmental Studies major, but you will for sure come out a better and more well rounded person after pursuing an Environmental Studies degree at Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:
Those are great pitches and I think I had mentioned this to you in the past, did you know Melissa Lumbergh?

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yes. Yeah, Melissa was an environmental studies major, was she a history major too?

Greg Kaster:
Well, she took a couple … She was in my first term seminar, way back when. We haven’t gotten together in awhile, but we had this tradition after she graduate, we’d get together every summer for lunch. And the last I knew she had received a law degree in Environmental Studies in Minnesota and was working for a big energy firm. But I always thought of her, a perfect example of what you can do with the Environmental Studies major, how interdisciplinary it is and how it leads in so many different directions. Just great preparation.

So I majored in chemistry and believe it or not, I can picture my chemistry teacher in high school. All the tests I took, tests to tell you what you want to be, what you should be when you grow up, suggested chemistry. I didn’t pursue it, but here it is I get to talk to you and my other colleagues. So Jeff, thanks so much.

Jeff Jeremiason:
Yeah. Thank you, Greg. This was a lot of fun.

Greg Kaster:
It was great. Take care.

 

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jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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