Near the helm of the scientific research vessel the “Blue Heron,” anchored at Navy Pier on Thursday, a group of high school students listened to environmental science professor John Kessler talk about his research on climate change.
“The entire Great Lakes is our beaker,” he said.
During a one-week research trip on the ship, Kessler and his three-member research team, based out of University of Rochester, are gathering information on how bacteria and other processes in the Great Lakes consume and emit natural greenhouse gases — specifically methane. They are interested in how these systems contribute to climate change.
The ship stopped at Navy Pier to give free educational tours of the Blue Heron and its equipment to students from three Chicago Public Schools and members of the public.
In light of President Donald Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, Kessler said he thinks issues such as climate change have become more political than scientific. Now more than ever, he thinks the scientific community must communicate data to people.
“There’s skepticism about science,” he said. “It’s our job to slowly and methodically go through and talk about science … and communicate what we know and don’t know.”
The Blue Heron, 86 feet long, is smaller than most commercial vessels, said Peter Norick, one of five crew members joining four researchers.
It makes up for it with state-of-the-art technology that allows the scientists to study biological, chemical, and geological samples of water and sediment from the bottom up to the surface level of the lake — with measurements coming in once a second.
Kessler’s team, still early in its research, has discovered that bacteria microbes consume more methane than they thought. It also found new environmental processes, near the surface of the water, that actually emit greenhouse gases.
“The research they are doing is climate sensitive, and it’s really ground-breaking because the specific thing they are measuring has never been measured before,” said Sue Kessler, arts and culture program manager for Navy Pier.
The National Science Foundation funds the boat and this research trip, the fourth the team has conducted on the Great Lakes.
The tour showed students the career possibilities scientific research offers, said Solorio Academy High School environmental science teacher Greta Kringle.
Solorio student Jermaine Price, 17, said he liked hearing about the team’s sailing on the ship — and its experiences with trial and error.
“It is pretty hands-on,” he said.