I once helped draw blood from a wild falcon, its lithe wings gently lashed, its head covered to calm it. Biologists have been taking such tests for more than thirty years, tracking toxins in the predatory birds as they make landfall after spending months in Central and South America, where chemicals such as DDT and PCB aren’t banned like they are in the United States, since the 1970s. A month earlier I’d heard Charles Henny, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist with a focus on toxicology, say that by 2004 there was almost no detectable DDT in these falcons, whose populations had crashed due to DDT but then recovered. But there was something new on his radar. “There’s other stuff that’s replaced it,” he said. “My concern right now is the flame retardants.”
In graduate school I studied under religion writer Jeff Sharlet. It was through him that I learned how every story is a story of faith. The debate around climate change—is it happening, how bad is it, if it is happening what’s causing it, what should we do about it?—really comes down to a question of belief.
This summer, Andrew Hoffman had a piece in the Christian Science Monitor that addressed this fundamental notion of worldviews and cultural beliefs underlying the divide between climate skeptics and believers. He wrote, “For skeptics, climate change is inextricably tied to a belief that climate science and policy are a covert way for liberal environmentalists and the government to diminish citizens’ personal freedom.” For the skeptics, the science is merely a guise for a liberal anti-capitalist agenda.
But does the public agree?
First we basked with whales, then we explored the aquatic food chain, from the micro to the mouthwatering. In the final part of this mini-series on the state of the sea, let’s turn our gaze to the Pacific Ocean, where coral reefs are tumbling into oblivion, plastic is taking on the form of large land masses, and rampaging rubber duckies are on the loose. There’s some good news too.
Coral reefs are the oases of the oceans, the “rainforests of the sea,” sustaining a quarter of all marine species though they occupy less than 0.1 percent of the world’s watery surface. They are living structures formed by colonies of small creatures that exude calcium carbonate as an exoskeleton, creating masses that are underwater havens of life.
But they’re picky buggers, worse than that prima donna Goldilocks….
Phytoplankton and Fisheries
Last time I wrote, we were out watching whales, the biggest creatures in the ocean. This time, let’s start small, with those phytoplankton that are the foundation of the marine food web, the organisms that make water so blue to our eyes. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, phytoplankton serve as a “biological carbon pump” that transfers about 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean each year. They bloom and retreat. They move and wander through the ocean. They provide sustenance for everything from teeny tiny fish to the great whales I saw off Cape Cod.
Last month I boarded a small ship in Cape Cod and headed out to sea in search of whales. The going was easy, the day pleasant, the seas calm. The voice of a naturalist wafted from the loudspeakers, filling our heads with biological facts and pointing out shearwaters as they skimmed above the surface of the water on lance-like wings. And the whales! We observed cetaceans of the filter-feeding mysticetes variety. Humpbacks rose from the water, just a hint of their immense size revealed with each surfacing, “carrying their tonnage / of barnacles and joy,” in the words of poet Mary Oliver. Three traveled together, each emergence and descent repeated in the same order…one, two, three. One minke whale penetrated the surface of the water just off the ship’s starboard side, and vanished a second later.
At any one moment, only a fraction of the leviathans were visible, but even with their immensity, the whales only represented an infinitesimal percentage of the abundance of life we witnessed that day. The color of the water revealed much of the rest. Water, alone, is colorless. Come winter I’ll crave the crystal-clear liquid that hugs the equator, warm and wet, as will the humpbacks that will travel there to calve. But those tropical waters are aquatic deserts where life hovers only around the oases of coral reefs, many of which are dying. Here in the North Atlantic, the deep blue-green waters teem with untold existence—carbon-sucking, oxygen-generating, bottom-of-the-food-chain, maybe-not-so-charismatic-but-unbelievably-important phytoplankton. Without these creatures, an entire web would unravel.
As my seventy-six-year-old father reached out across the wire fence to touch the rhino, his face lit up like a little kid’s. Baraka, which means “blessings be” in languages from Africa to Asia, is a black rhino at theOl Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya, where we visited last year. He is unable to return to the wild where he was born, after losing one eye in a fight and the other to a cataract. Most of his two horns were removed to make him less appealing to poachers. Now he serves as the public ambassador for rhino conservation, mingling with the tourists and accepting their handfuls of hay. And making older men, and thus their daughters, smile.
Nearby, a southern white rhino named Max lingered….
Another post on Dissent’s Arguing the World blog….
Sunday is Mother’s Day, and—after calling my mom to tell her how great she is—I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Kenya. Meanwhile, all week long, planes have been leaving Nairobi, laden with sweet-smelling bouquets bound for mothers all over the world.
Europe’s equivalent of the New World’s Colombia, Kenya provides the other side of the pond with a third of its cut flowers—88 million tons of blooming glory each year, worth some $264 million. The vast majority of them are produced at one location at Lake Naivasha, the largest freshwater lake in the Great Rift Valley. I spent weeks on the shores of the lake last year, where zebras and leopards still roam, and where I’ll soon be returning. The scene there is not so—sorry—rosy.
In the so-called Happy Valley, the acacia forest that once ringed the lake is broken in places by swaths of industrial floriculture greenhouses, unending bows of plastic …
I’ll be doing a little guest blogging on environmental issues over at Dissent. Here’s the first:
Nixon would never have let this happen. Back when Tricky Dicky ruled, Americans had nearly annihilated such creatures as the bison, the peregrine falcon, and the bald eagle, but were making efforts to bring them all back. It was 1973 when Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, crafted in a collaborative effort between scientists and government, with a hearty dose of lawyerly input. It was a monumental step for species survival, ensuring a place for the marginalized flora and fauna that were at risk of extinction as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The year 1973 also marked the culmination of an era when conservatives could publicly support conservation without being vilified. The intent of the landmark law was that, once in place, decisions about listing—and delisting—species as endangered would be based on conservation science, not politics.
That all changed this month when Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), a music teacher turned farmer, and Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID), a dentist, placed a rider on the federal budget bill that removes wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Utah from the federal endangered species list.