Sunday, June 10, 2012

Arctic Algal Bloom

Late-night Brigitte left a link that early-riser yours-truly read this morning. That story—and all the others referenced here—are from the Los Angeles Times. They got me thinking about actions and their consequences.

Last Friday the Times brought a story (link) about NASA’s discovery of a massive algae bloom in the Arctic; this was a big surprise for the scientists involved—and what it means is still being debated. Two years ago, for instance, a Canadian team had reported something contrary: the world’s phytoplankton has been disappearing at the rate of 1 percent a year over the last 100 years (link).

Does NASA’s discovery mean that things are suddenly turning around? Or does it mean that melting Arctic ice has caused phytoplankton to wake up and multiply? Or does it mean that increasing carbon dioxide is good for algae? They certainly feed on it.

The rule for scientists and journalists is to report what they find—without fear. Peer review will sort things out, sooner or later. Last Thursday, thus the day before the algal bloom, the Times brought quite another kind of story (link). It concerned the nearness of the “tipping point”: we have too many people, and our actions threaten irreversible planetary consequences.

This got me thinking. The scientists’ gloom in the tipping-point story may certainly be justified, but stories about approaching Armageddon almost always have the same structure. They project change in one part of the environment while holding all other trends steady. Thus it is presumed that burning massive quantities of fuels, paving the arable surface of the planet, mowing down the rain forests, and genetically distorting crops will continue unabated—yet that population will keep on climbing from 7 to 9.3 billion by 2050. Or, conversely, that global warming will increase—but the amount of water vaporized will remain the same and the sky will remain as bright and blue as ever. The story about algae blooms, however, in altogether unanticipated places, suggests a wilder and more interesting future.

Irreversible consequences? I mourn the decline of liberal education. Even a pathetic one like mine exposed me to Horace’s saying; indeed, we all know it. You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will hurry back. I always frown when I hear the word “fragile” applied to earth or nature—until it occurs to me that the speaker is talking about the short term. We’ve had global warming before—swamps, swamps everywhere. Tyrannosaurus was the bad guy on the block. We’ve had an earth, or so I’m told, without free oxygen in its atmosphere and everything barren.

We’ll pay the price for our abuse, of course. The future won’t be pretty. I frankly can’t imagine maintaining  9 billion humans when fossil fuels run out. No problems in the short run. No doubt I’ll ride to the crematorium in a gasoline powered vehicle after I pass. But Nature will reverse the damage after the Troubles that lie ahead.

It is, however, natural for declining civilizations to engage in End Time projections, whether they’re powered by fossil fuels or not. If the tilting point is not yet near, our extraordinary science has yet something even grander up its sleeve. That brings me to the final LA Times story I want to reference (link). It came a week before the tilting point story, on May 31: “Milky Way, Andromeda galaxies set to crash — in 4 billion years.” Human caused? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Phytoplankton image from Wikipedia (link).


  1. It is an odd thought, that our collective time frame reference appears to shorten as our life expectancy grows.

  2. I heard a discussion on France Culture about the consequences of global warming where it was quite clearly stated that nature would survive and compensate but MAN might not.