Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ocean Acidification

Remember the photo of the earth viewed from the moon? 

It reminds us that even though the earth seems limitless, it is not. 
It is like a boat, and we all share it.

Or, it’s like a terrarium or, it’s like a fish tank.  I personally am hooked on the fish tank analogy because of an experience I had first as a child and then as an adult, both involving fish tanks.

I grew up in a house just across from Big Bayou on Tampa Bay, in a neighborhood where we all had public access to the beach.  Every afternoon after school, the neighborhood kids would rush down to swim, fish, play in the sand, go sailing or skiing, and catch things in our seine nets.   When my father got home in the evenings, and on weekends, we would sail in and outside Tampa Bay. 

With help of a large seine net and my father’s cast net, I put together a really nice collection of fish in my salt water fish tank: angel fish, sea horses, pipefish, little scavengers, some plants.  It was a lovely tank.  
One weekend, my family went away for a three day weekend.   By Sunday when we returned, the tank was putrid.  It was so nasty, and stunk so badly, that my mother made me carry the water, bucket by bucket, to the storm sewer a block from our house.   My first experience with environmental catastrophe, albeit on a small scale. 

Well, fast forward 25 years when I have a child of my own.  I create a fresh water fish tank for my child to enjoy.  It is green and lovely and has about 20 fish in it that seem all to be doing well.  Then, suddenly, I wake up one morning and everything in my beautiful, living tank is now dead.  Overnight, it seems, everything is very dead and awful smelling.  My second experience with environmental catastrophe, on the fish tank level of catastrophe.  “What happened, “ I wondered?  “How could this have happened so suddenly?” 

This is when I was first exposed to the idea of the tipping point.  According to the pet store owner, my tank’s nitrogen cycle had gotten out of balance and caused my tank to reach its tipping point.  As he explained, fish excrement and decaying plants create ammonium, which is poisonous.   This is broken down by bacteria, however.  In a well balanced fish tank, the waste product is broken down as fast as it is produced, so the water doesn’t get filthy.  At least not right away.  (The biological nitrogen cycle is generally described in a web page HERE, with the breakdown of ammonium from the fish waste being step four of the process described on that page.)

The fish can tolerate a certain amount of filth in their water.  But if the concentration tips beyond what sensitive fish will tolerate – if the tank reaches its tipping point – the fish die. 

Then, after this tipping point, it gets even worse because the dead fish increase the noxious chemicals.  After they die, the decomposing fish cause an additional spike in the toxic ammonium in the water.  This kills even more fish, even the ones that perhaps were not as sensitive.   Once the vicious cycle has been started, it’s unstoppable without outside intervention.   The explosion of garbage in the water makes it unable to sustain life at all.  Everything dies.  Boom:  your fish tank just went from green one day to brown, rotten, dead and stinking the next.  

How does a fish tank owner monitor the presence of ammonium in the water?  By measuring pH.    A shift in pH indicates there is too much ammonium in the water.  Of course, it can indicate other things as well, but the bottom line is that fish and plants do not thrive in an acidic environment any more than trees in the Smokey Mountains thrive in acid rain. 
Where’s the analogy?

The earth is like a very, very big fish tank.  It’s been able to absorb a lot of garbage.  But it’s not limitless.  It’s been exploited and abused.  At the same time that we depend on the oceans to moderate our weather and to support our human food chain, we have been dumping garbage and chemicals and refuse into the ocean as if the ocean were a garbage an with an unlimited capacity.

And now I read this morning (in an article HERE) that the oceans are being acidified at a rate not seen in 300 Million years!  Did I get that right?  I don’t think I can comprehend 300 Million years!  If we measure one human lifetime as 75 years, that would be 75 million lifetimes.  (The earth has known something called “human civilization” for what, about 10,000 years (if we’re generous)?  So, our entire recorded history is just one percent of one of those seventy five million lifetimes? )  Acidification of the oceans sounds a bit too much like acidification of my fish tank, to my simplistic mind. 

I, dreadfully much, never want to hear the news that the earth -- my only planet -- has reached its tipping point on anything.  I mean, life on a Goldilocks planet in some distant planetary system is interesting to fantasize about, or a colony on the moon is an interesting idea, but let’s face it.  We live on earth.  And the only life we really know about lives on earth.  The reality is that for human kind, and for all life that we know about, this is it.  And it’s looking rather small. 

Now, we’re being told about two separate, major issues.  (Not that I’m surprised.)   Global warming  is enabling the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, but these previously deflected a lot of the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere.  Because they’re not bouncing the rays back, the oceans are absorbing even more heat and this is causing accelerated warming, and even more rapid melting.  A cycle may have begun there that no matter what we do or how hard we try, humankind is helpless to stop.  

By the time the idiot politicians -- who want to justify continued factory and auto emissions --  realize that global climate change is a real threat, it will be too late for all of us.   Their stupidity will have caused a delay that human kind cannot recover from.  That life cannot recover from (because humans are not the only life there is.)   Drowning coastal areas, desertification of the earth due to loss of temperate rainfall, temperature swings, mass extinctions, vicious cycles.  Skeptics love to make fun of Al Gore the way that imbeciles always love to make fun of that which they don’t understand.   While anti-conservation demagogues are arguing whether there’s enough evidence to justify regulation of capitalist polluters, the earth may be pall mall on the path to reach a tipping point where no intervention could slow down an accelerating catastrophe. 

This has been my private, personal nightmare vision.  If I’m wrong, and there is no global warming, what’s the worst that could happen?  I mean, really!  If the environmentalists are right, and we enact stricter environmental regulations, the worst case scenario is that we have a greener, more environmentally friendly earth and industry.    On the other hand, what are the consequences if I’m right and the climate change “deniers” are wrong?   If the anti-global warming people are wrong and we do have global climate change, humankind – and indeed life on earth as we know it --  is facing an epic crisis.  Life will go on, but perhaps not life as we know it. 

And now, on top of that, we now get another issue.  Are the oceans reaching the end of their capacity to absorb the effects of human pollution?    I would not be surprised. 

The oceans cover 2/3 of the earth’s surface.  They’ve put up with a lot.  But now we’re hearing of the terrible pollution in the ocean, unexplained fish kill-offs, depletion of fisheries, dolphins with strange skin ailments, we see the effects throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico from the BP  oil spill.  And now, this most recent news that the earth’s oceans are becoming acidic at a rate not equaled in the last 300 MILLION YEARS.

300 million years. 

75 percent of the world’s population lives with 75 miles of the coast.  The oceans moderate our climate and contribute much of the food we eat.  We’ve known about over fishing and pollution.  And now acidification.  What are the ramifications of this additional possible factor?   

I don’t want to think about it. 

What can we do about it?   It’s going to take all of us getting on board together to fix this.  Humanity needs to find new ways of building consensus and acting on it.   What do you see as the first step, for you and for me?  Please leave a comment with an idea. 

1 comment:

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