Around the Pier: Researcher Confronting Climate Change with Coral Reef Mosaics

Courtney Van Gorden

As a member of the Keeling Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, Tim Lueker engages youngsters in the art of mosaic making while educating them on topics pertaining to his research.

Lueker, along with other members of the Scripps Carbon Dioxide Group, quantifies amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which have risen sharply in the industrial era well above natural levels from the past 800,000 years. His experience has led him to be a voice for coral reefs, which stand to lose the most from this rapid acceleration of CO2, a key greenhouse gas. Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide contribute to ocean warming and acidification and in turn, endanger corals through the dissolution of their skeletons. In his career and through his art, Lueker stresses the importance of caring for coral reef ecosystems.

One particular mosaic, titled “Save Our Coral Reefs,” is an example. With its details etched in shards of stone, glass, porcelain, and ceramic tile, as well as sea shells and abalone, intricately arranged to enliven the ecosystem itself, the piece demands attention from any passerby. It is mounted at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Lueker’s hometown of Encinitas, Calif., where Lueker and a group of sixth graders designed its construction.

Lueker completed his undergraduate studies at the Florida Institute of Technology, majoring in oceanography, and began his relationship with Scripps as a researcher in December 1983. Then, he measured CO2 chemistry in seawater while working for Charles David Keeling, namesake of the famous Keeling Curve, a record of atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the Northern Hemisphere, established in 1958. Lueker became a Scripps graduate student in 1992 and received his doctorate in 1998, measuring variations in the air-sea equilibrium of CO2, otherwise known as the Revel Factor, as part of his graduate studies. Today, he travels to various collection stations throughout California and elsewhere to gather air samples that he later analyzes. In addition to others in his research group, he assesses the extent of CO2 in air and derives environmental implications therefrom. 

While on a scientific hiatus between the years of 2005 and 2012, Lueker took up the art of mosaic making. Although he worked with tile in landscape-related projects previously, he did not try it as art until his time away from Scripps. After discovering his knack for it he began reaching out to his local community and sharing his skills and knowledge.

Lueker says that instead of simply stating the ocean’s bleak forecast and blaming humans for its onset, art should introduce some sort of fun.

“Art is the way you get around the reality, the scary science reality of what’s going on and how you get people involved without scaring people to the extent they refuse to listen,” he said.

Influenced by stories of his father’s experiences as a first-generation SCUBA diver, Lueker delights in snorkeling over coral reefs that might one day exist solely as memories.

“They’ll be gone, because we destroyed them,” he said. “Inadvertently by figuring out how to use fossil fuels to energize our civilization, we’ve destroyed the most beautiful things on the planet in three or four generations of people being on the Earth. That is, to me, this great tragedy. And that is why I am doing this.”

Another of Lueker’s mosaics is installed in the Career Center at Del Lago Academy in Escondido, located about 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Here, he and the school’s incoming high school students created the mosaic “Imagine Your Future” in 2013. Measuring nine feet by 17 feet, the mural contrasts a future that either advances toward the use of renewable energy sources or stagnates with the current trend of fossil fuel use. The left side envisions life and preserves the beauty that thrives beneath the blue, while the right side predicts impending environmental doom. Students worked during their spring and summer breaks to finish the endeavor. Care stemmed from their creations and the interactions that occurred throughout the project, despite the majority never experiencing the ocean or coral reefs.

“Ultimately, the idea is to get people to care about things they don’t normally see,” said Lueker.

Even where there is close proximity to corals, however, aggressive conservation is not a given. At a recent meeting of scientists, Lueker presented a project he oversaw in partnership with Pauline Chinn, a professor in curriculum studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Mosaics and climate change served as the focus of the training program they organized for teachers on the Big Island in 2013. The two led field trips to NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory, where the Keeling Curve originated, and other research stations, such as those at Cape Kumukahi, that are seldom visited by local educators. Lueker also held mosaic workshops as part of the teacher training program.

From these immersive field trips and workshops, participants became aware of the gravity of climate change and how ocean acidification is detrimental to the corals which inhabit their shorelines. This training allowed the teachers to bring what they learned into their own classrooms, where they instruct primary and secondary students in mosaic art while educating them about what is happening to their environment.

“Lueker's Hawaii-based mosaic project connected his own doctoral research with Charles Keeling to indigenous Hawaiian science characterized by constant observation and communication,” said Chinn in an e-mail. “A Hawaiian saying captures this respect for learning from multiple sources:  'A'ohe pau ka 'ike i ka hālau ho'okāhi; which translates to ‘all knowledge is not taught in the same school.’” 

Lueker wants to continue hosting his mosaic workshops in Hawaii and San Diego while expanding his outreach to places like Puerto Rico, where educating people on climate change is an imperative toward the goal of protecting the coral reef ecosystems that they directly affect. Currently, he is gathering funds to partake in a new project in partnership with the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum and Del Lago Academy. The project is to be installed at the museum’s entry in Escondido, Calif. upon completion and is to feature the region’s native habitat and its endangered species. Lueker is seeking donations to complete the work.

“Tim is passionate about the work he does: he's a hands-on guy, a big thinker and great communicator who is deeply concerned about climate change and its impact on future generations,” said Chinn. “He is a scientist who thinks like a Hawaiian: He ali'i ka 'āina; he kauwā ke kanaka; The land is a chief; man is its servant.” 

– Courtney Van Gorden is a former Scripps staff research associate and contributor to explorations now

Related Image Gallery: Researcher Confronting Climate Change with Coral Reef Mosaics


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