Thursday, August 21, 2008

Life is hard

It's hard being at the bottom of the food chain. You get absolutely no respect, not even from wildlife protection agencies. The only way anybody even realizes you're there at all is when you disappear--i.e., die off, go extinct.

Yet the bottom feeders are one of the key players in maintaining the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Or rather, more correctly, the oceans are. The WWF and other similar organizations make a huge hullabaloo about saving the whales and pandas and other fuzzy, photogenic creatures, but to be completely and brutally honest I don't think the planet would miss them if the whales disappeared. We humans certainly would, and that goes double for the Japanese and Icelandic whalers as well as for anybody who makes a living giving whale watches. The Operation Cat Drop Principle prohibits me from stating this as a fact, but the fact still remains that there are many superfluous species in the world. Honestly, how many different types of bunting does an ecosystem really need?

The oceans are the biggest carbon sinks, absorbing 90 trillion tons of carbon dioxide every year, and releasing 88 trillion (I'm not entirely certain that I trust the link the numbers came from, but suffice it to say that the oceans sequester a lot of carbon dioxide). The oceans absorb carbon dioxide in two ways: the first is that carbon dioxide is naturally soluble in water and gets dissolved. The solubility increases as it gets colder, so the farther down you go, the colder the water, and the more carbon the water contains. The second is comprised of those trillions upon gazillions of plankton that float around. Plankton are essentially microscopic plants, which use carbon dioxide and make oxygen.

The disaster at Lake Nyos is a dramatic example of what would happen if the carbon sinks were to fail. Granted, the Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun incidents are unique, in the sense that these are volcanic lakes--some geologists believe there is a fissure that leaks carbon dioxide into the water. Because the water is so deep--and therefore, so cold--it contains a lot of carbon dioxide. Anybody who's opened a bottle of soda or a can of beer knows that carbon dioxide is not happily contained in water, and any kind of disturbance--some geologists speculate a deep-lake mudslide--will set the carbon dioxide free.

Even though the Lake Nyos tragedy is singular, the weakening of the oceanic carbon sinks should give us cause for concern. Plankton and many forms of aquatic life live within a very limited range of temperatures. Plankton are also limited to the surface layer of the ocean because they require sunlight. The increase in ocean water temperatures by a scant few degrees can affect the health of the plankton, and, by corollary, all of the animals that live on them.

It is not, therefore, for the sake of the whales that we must protect the oceans, but for our own sake. The oceans provide fish, and therefore an income and an industry's existence. The lives of farmers depends on the climate that is affected by these great bodies of water. Even in the first world, the dependence of farmers on the beneficence of the weather is important to the health of the people and the economy--when you consider that less than 1% of the people in the US farm for a living, it's obvious where a bottleneck would be if the weather were to be any more insane than it is now.

Tomorrow: what we can do. And don't worry, it won't be sappy.

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