Carbon dioxide properties,

THE SEA AROUND US

Patella caerulea

Castello Aragonese is a tiny island that rises straight out of the Tyrrhenian Sea, like a turret. Eighteen miles west of Naples, it can be reached from the larger island of Ischia via a long, narrow stone bridge. At the end of the bridge there’s a booth where ten euros buys a ticket that allows you to climb—or, better yet, take the elevator—up to the massive castle that gives the island its name. The castle houses a display of medieval torture instruments as well as a fancy hotel and an outdoor café. On a summer evening, the café is supposed to be a pleasant place to sip Campari and contemplate the terrors of the past.

Like many small places, Castello Aragonese is a product of ” “very large forces, in this case the northward drift of Africa, which every year brings Tripoli an inch or so closer to Rome. Along a complicated set of folds, the African plate is pressing into Eurasia, the way a sheet of metal might be forced into a furnace. Occasionally, this process results in violent volcanic eruptions. (One such eruption, in 1302, led the entire population of Ischia to take refuge on Castello Aragonese.) On a more regular basis, it sends streams of gas bubbling out of vents in the sea floor. This gas, as it happens, is almost a hundred percent carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide has many interesting properties, one of which is that it dissolves in water to form an acid. I have come to Ischia in late January, deep into the off-season, specifically to swim in its bubbly, acidified bay. Two marine biologists, Jason Hall-Spencer and Maria Cristina Buia, have promised to show me the vents, provided the predicted rainstorm holds off. It is a raw, gray day, and we are thumping along in a fishing boat that’s been converted into a research vessel. We round Castello Aragonese and anchor about twenty yards from its “its rocky cliffs. From the boat, I can’t see the vents, but I can see signs of them. A whitish band of barnacles runs all the way around the base of the island, except above the vents, where the barnacles are missing.”

“Barnacles are pretty tough,” Hall-Spencer observes. He is British, with dirty blond hair that sticks up in unpredictable directions. He’s wearing a dry suit, which is a sort of wet suit designed to keep its owner from ever getting wet, and it makes him look as if he’s preparing for a space journey. Buia is Italian, with reddish brown hair that reaches her shoulders. She strips down to her bathing suit and pulls on her wet suit with one expert motion. I try to emulate her with a suit I have borrowed for the occasion. It is, I learn as I tug at the zipper, about half a size too small. We all put on masks and flippers and flop in.”

“The water is frigid. Hall-Spencer is carrying a knife. He pries some sea urchins from a rock and holds them out to me. Their spines are an inky black. We swim on, along the southern shore of the island, toward the vents. Hall-Spencer and Buia keep pausing to gather samples—corals, snails, seaweeds, mussels—which they place in mesh sacs that drag behind them in the water. When we get close enough, I start to see bubbles rising from the sea floor, like beads of quicksilver. Beds of seagrass wave beneath us. The blades are a peculiarly vivid green. This, I later learn, is because the tiny organisms that usually coat them, dulling their color, are missing. The closer we get to the vents, the less there is to collect. The sea urchins drop away, and so, too, do the mussels and the barnacles. Buia finds some hapless limpets attached to the cliff. Their shells have wasted away almost to the point of transparency. Swarms of jellyfish waft by, just a shade paler than the sea.

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