New Harbor Branch director set to deal with big challenges
For a world-renowned oceanographer like Anton Post, climate change deniers have always been a bit maddening.
So only days after the presidential election, Post sat in his new office at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, trying to reconcile election results with the already daunting challenges he faces as Harbor Branch’s new executive director.
The former visiting scholar at M.I.T., who won a fellowship to do research at the famed Oceanographic Institute at Woods Hole, had spent his career studying the shifting oceans. Now a political tide had rendered him close to speechless, at least on one subject: Donald Trump, the soon-to-be leader of the free world, has said he thinks climate change is a hoax.
“I live on Cape Cod. I see the effects of sea level rise there. I work in Rhode Island, in Newport. They have kept a record since the 1930s. Sea level rise has happened there at a foot-and-a-half per century. That may sound like little, but it is not,” says Post.
“I look at Florida and we are this much above sea level,” he says, pinching his fingers. “I saw the king tide, I saw all those pictures of Fort Lauderdale underwater and Miami underwater. I think we have big challenges. It’s going to be my task to work with Harbor Branch for the state of Florida.”
Post remains upbeat despite first-hand knowledge of how reliant science is on government as well as private-sector funding. Much of Post’s career has been spent overseeing projects involving multimillion-dollar research grants at universities and the National Science Foundation, where he was a program director at the Division of Ocean Sciences.
Most recently, Post has been director of the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center, part of the school’s department of oceanography. There is pride – and an insistent urgency – as he describes the center’s work and achievements.
“That center takes the evidence-based science that is produced at the university and other universities and works with the community to provide them with products and solutions that counter global climate change, that benefit their livelihoods and their economies and their quality of life,” he says.
The team Post worked on was involved in marine spatial planning for the country’s first offshore wind farm, mapping the various uses and values of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. “It’s like urban planning for the marine environment,” Post says. “You map out where the fishermen are, where the rich people live, where the tourists go, what the shipping routes are, where the bird watchers want to be. From that mapping exercise, we analyze it in identifying a [windfarm] site.”
The five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, which has made national headlines, is slated to go online later this month.
Post says he has always had a soft spot for windmills. Born in the Netherlands where his uncle owned a windmill that powered a saw mill, he grew up 15 minutes outside of Amsterdam.
Post’s father relied on another Dutch tradition: He built a chain of chocolate shops – the family home turned into a candy factory at Christmas and Easter, Post recalls, with a division of labor in each room.
“He was very proud of being able to provide for his family and the children’s education. But he had interrupted his own academic studies to support a young family after the war. So he also wanted me to have a Ph.D. He never pushed me, but he always gave me an opportunity.”
After earning his bachelor of science degree in biology, a master’s in aquatic microbial ecology and a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Amsterdam, Post’s academic career took an international turn. He had what he calls “a formative internship” with the Brookhaven Institute, and spent almost a year in Japan.
From there he went to Israel in 1986 for post-doctoral studies at Hebrew University. He met his wife Osnat in Israel and started what would be a family of three children. Osnat Post is an architect and urban planner.
While in Jerusalem, Anton Post collaborated closely with Sally Chisholm at M.I.T., who was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Obama. He eventually earned a fellowship to work at the University of Chicago’s Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. From there, he ended up at the University of Rhode Island.
Post’s first visit to Florida was in June; he has been visiting monthly since then. He arrives permanently next month to take the helm at Harbor Branch. The internationally respected marine research institute is home to 155 scientists on a 144-acre campus; it is located along the Indian River Lagoon between Vero Beach and the Fort Pierce inlet. Dr. Megan Brown, who has served as interim director for the past three years, will continue as a research scientist.
Harbor Branch, founded in 1971 by deep-water submersible engineer Edwin Link and pharmaceutical tycoon J. Seward Johnson Sr., is now part of Florida Atlantic University, whose main campus is in Boca Raton.
FAU, Florida’s fifth public university, took over Harbor Branch in 2007 at a time when the ocean research center was struggling financially.
The institute’s goal is to further ocean engineering, aquaculture, drug discovery and other marine biotechnology and explore new ways to monitor the oceans. But the most important goals to local residents are its focus on coastal ecology and marine mammal research.
Last month alone, Harbor Branch researchers published papers in two important scientific journal – one, on the impact of sea ice changes on the migration of whales, and another, published by the CDC’s Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, on lesions in dolphins.
Dolphin diseases and marine mammal stranding in the Indian River Lagoon and elsewhere “all tie back to some degree with ocean acidification and surface warming due to human impact on the natural eco-system,” Post says.
Now, the fate of Harbor Branch’s research dollars may be uncertain. Trump has already promised to cut EPA regulations by “70 to 80 percent,” and appointed a climate-change skeptic, Myron Ebell, to direct the EPA transition. Last week, he doubled down, appointing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.
Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general and an outspoken opponent of pollution regulation, is suing the EPA on two fronts over its efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. A former Republican state senator, Pruitt calls himself “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” and has called the debate over climate change “far from settled.”
“How much denying will be going on? What will support be for science? How will it affect funding?” asks Post. “It’s a big challenge but I truly believe that even though we have questions, in any transition there are challenges but also opportunities.
“So maybe there will be a period where there is less funding for federal agencies, but that will provide opportunities to work closer with communities,” he went on. “We have to be creative with fundraising. There are foundations that can be engaged and there are public-private partnerships. Many coastal issues that we talk about today – coastal erosion, offshore aquaculture, marina protection from global climate change, what happens to the value of our coastal property with sea level rise and hurricanes – build off each other.”
Earlier this fall, Harbor Branch held a small event leading up to the big February Love Your Lagoon fund-raiser staged by the research center annually.
“It was so clear how passionate people here are – not just at Harbor Branch but in the community,” says Post.
That gives Post hope. The health of the Indian River Lagoon, it turns out, is a non-partisan passion.
“The expectation of Florida Atlantic is that I will be bringing the science to the state house and to federal agencies, and inform them and shape a discussion about how science can contribute and how together we should get these problems solved.”