Category Archives: Science

How the Ocean Was Wrecked

This TED talk from scientist Jeremy Jackson is simply depressing.

I don’t really have comments here–it just speaks for its depressing self. I wonder, sometimes, if the ocean ecosystems will survive humans. And I wonder if humans will survive the loss of ocean ecosystems.

Your “Happy” News Today

Remember the hole in the ozone? Which we’ve managed to decrease substantially thanks to a rare willingness for the world to get together and do the right thing? Turns out that, but for a happy accident, the ozone hole might have killed us all.

Looking back, it’s remarkable to ponder the serendipity of these discoveries—and how little margin for error we had. As luck would have it, DuPont had been using chlorine instead of bromine to produce CFCs. As far as anyone could tell, the two elements were interchangeable. But, as another prescient ozone researcher, Paul Crutzen, later noted, bromine is 45 times as effective at destroying ozone as chlorine. Had DuPont chosen to use bromine, the ozone hole could well have spanned the globe by the 1970s instead of being largely confined to Antarctica—long before anyone had a glimmering of the problem. It’s not hard to see what massive worldwide ozone depletion would’ve meant. Punta Arenas, the southernmost town of Chile, sits under the Antarctic ozone hole, and skin cancer rates there have soared by 66 percent since 1994. If humans had destroyed stratospheric ozone across the globe, we would likely be unable to set foot outdoors without layers of sunscreen and dark shades to prevent eye damage. Worse, the excess UV rays could have killed off many of the single-celled organisms that form the basis for the ocean’s food chain and disrupted global agriculture (studies show that bean and pea crop yields decline about 1 percent for every percent increase in UV exposure).

Happily, though, scientists did discover the ozone hole. And, despite industry warnings that abolishing CFCs would impose unbearable costs, world leaders agreed to phase out the chemicals in 1987, and economic ruin never arrived. DuPont developed a substitute for CFCs, and ozone levels in the atmosphere have stabilized, with the hole over Antarctica expected to heal by 2050. A topic that once graced the cover of Time and generated heated congressional debates now barely gets mentioned. We learned to stay within one planetary boundary without impeding human prosperity. That should give us every reason to think we can respect the others we are now barreling past.

What’s frightening is that this lucky accident of using chlorine over bromine was simply that chlorine was cheaper. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s an alternate world doing far, far, worse because there was a run on chlorine that caused Dow to go with bromine instead.

Our world barely missed the apocalypse by accident. But with so many other threats out there being ignored, how long can our luck hold out?

Professor Brother Is Watching You

Northern Arizona State University has decided to implement a policy to implant RFID tags in student IDs so that they can track the movements of their students.

Not to worry, though–the students have taken to complaining about it on Facebook!

Yes, the same Facebook that has evolved to offer virtually no privacy protection at all unless you’re very, very careful.

A better idea for the RFID ID cards is simply to make them useless. Surely there are some students out there willing to collect a 100 or so IDs for a day and have some fun with them. Tie them to dogs, walk in and out of every classroom with them, whatever.

And, you know, a good old fashioned protest–like one where folks just dropped their cards and burned them–wouldn’t be that bad, either.

Ah, who am I kidding? Tweet away, students! I’m sure the administration is listening.

That is, if they’ve figured out how to use Twitter yet.

Gulf Oil Spill Might Change the Ecosystem Forever

The oil spill in the Gulf Coast, which will stand as a monument to human stupidity and greed, could possibly completely devastate the ecosystem–turning it into something else entirely.

If the flow is soon staunched, affected populations should rebound from losses in a few years, and even sooner if the oil stays at sea long enough to be churned by waves and consumed by microbes. Ecosystems will stay intact.

But if oil flows continue, plant and animal populations may be pushed to species-level tipping points, their numbers so low that replenishment is impossible. When this happens, food webs change. Some remaining species become more common, and others less. Disruption favors low-level opportunists that rush into newly open niches. Local ecosystems tip. If that keeps happening, an entire region can tip.

What does that mean? Its means the fish might go away. Or the shrimp. Or some of the plants. Or all of the above. It’s impossible to know right now. Adding insult to injury, as the article points out, is that overpollution has already stressed the Gulf ecosystem, meaning the oil spill might be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Unfortunately, the Gulf is already stressed by fishing and pollution. Mississippi River dams and levees have altered water and sediment flows that historically nourished the delta. In the last 50 years, some 1,500 square miles of wetlands have vanished. Sea-grass losses range from 12 percent to two-thirds. Researchers have reported changes in species compositions, and growing areas of vegetation “patchiness,” a pattern considered symptomatic of stressed systems verging on tips.

“The system is already becoming degraded,” said University of New Orleans ecologist Denise Reed. It’s too soon to know if local systems will tip, but “oil could push a marsh that’s already hanging by its fingernails over the edge,” she said.

Especially vulnerable are sea grasses and marshes in the western Gulf, home to a fishery worth $2.4 billion annually. The western Gulf has few beaches, which would allow oil to be cleaned with relative ease as it washes ashore. It lacks the barrier islands that line northern and eastern shores, calming waters and slowing the oil’s advance. Louisiana’s scalloped coastline could soak oil like a sponge.

The worst part of it all is that, at the present time, it looks like it might take weeks to stop the oil from leaking. Meaning we’re probably going to see some terrible, permanent effects and soon.

What’s the most mind-boggling about this disaster is that it illustrates an unbelievable lack of foresight. Oil pipelines have exploded before. Offshore rigs have leaked before. There is, in fact, technology available to make shutting off undersea valves quite simple. They are, in fact, required by law in Norway and Brazil. Alas, though, they are not required in the United States. So what could have become a manageable accident has become an unmitigated disaster.

All because the folks running the show were too stupid to put existing safeguards in place.