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M. Andrew Sprong

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The Dangers of Tampering with Nature
By M. Andrew Sprong
Last edited: Saturday, January 17, 2009
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2009

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M. Andrew Sprong

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With all of the hype about global warming and environmentalists desire to save the world, I would like to make a few points. First, I want to save the world as much as the next guy. I think what man has done to the environment is hideous and must be corrected for us to survive. That being said, I would like to point out a few overlooked misconceptions. The following is my opinion and though it is based upon actual events, it is up to the reader to explore the whole story, though you won’t get much sleep afterwords if you do.

During the last century, humans have managed to wipe out a number of species on the planet, but it didn’t quite happen the way it’s been reported.  While pollution, construction, and deforestation have contributed somewhat, the real culprit is something rather unexpected.

During the ‘70s, air pollution in the cities was at an all time high, with lead, soot, and ozone causing widespread problems for humans.  There was a push by environmentalists to add MTBE, an oxidizing solvent, to gasoline thereby increasing the combustion rate and thus reduce the soot level.  With the widespread replacement of tetra-ethyl lead with benzene, and you would think the benefits would outweigh the problems.  However, it wasn’t until the catalytic converter became mandatory that air quality actually improved significantly.  There was only one problem with the additives the gasoline refineries were forced to add.  Benzene is highly carcinogenic, and MTBE dissolves protective mucus found on fish and amphibian eggs.  Both products exit the tailpipe as oily residue, which ends up in reservoirs and eventually in the food chain.  The net effect was the reduction in amphibian populations throughout the U.S. as well as the rapid increase in cancer rates in humans, pets, and livestock.  While the benzene levels in our water supply vary with the seasons due to degradation due to ultraviolet light, the MTBE levels have continued to rise in our water supplies as the fuel containing it is used in automobiles and watercraft.  There is also some evidence that human fertility is on the decline due to the same damage to the mucus surrounding the human egg, but studies are still underfunded and point to other causes as well.  Some states have banned MTBE entirely, but without a reasonable replacement air pollution rates threaten to rise again.  As far as benzene antiknock agents are concerned, they are probably here to stay until somebody designs a piston, which will never fire prematurely due to temperature variations and fuel volatility.

How bad have the amphibian populations been affected?  It’s becomes rather obvious when you take a drive from Washington state into British Columbia where MTBE is not allowed.  In the forests of both regions, tree frogs once created quite a din during the evening hours.  These days though, you would have to climb high into the cascades before you heard so much as a peep in Washington state, while the frog population has barely dwindled in B.C.  In the states, which have banned MTBE, amphibian populations are making a slow recovery, but in other regions, many are going extinct.

In addition, last century, invasive species have been an issue all over the world, where the bilges of ships have brought fish and other aquatic life, which don’t play fair.  Often these things sort themselves out as predators adapt to the new food source, or prey species become wary of the new threat.  In island situations where the balance is precarious, invasions can have drastic results, and attempts at human intervention can increase the problems in a cascade of ecological collapse.

What happens when a bunch of well-meaning scientists enter a place and introduce a second species to catch and consume the intruder?  In the south Pacific, there was an intruder snail, which was eating the local flora and putting little holes in everything.  The intruders didn’t kill the plants -- instead they just made them unsightly.  The plants for their part were beginning to fight back by altering their chemistry to discourage the new foragers.  This change in chemistry was making the plants unpalatable for the native species.  Scientists wanted to protect a small species of local snail as well, and thus created intruder free areas where they could prosper unmolested.  The intruder snails ate the food supply needed by the weaker natives and thus threatened to wipe them out over a period of several decades, if ever.

Enter environmental scientists who decide the best thing to do is bring a mobile and aggressive flatworm onto the island to catch and consume the intruder snails and thus save the day.  Well, things did not work out as planned.  What the environmentalists failed to foresee was the arboreal nature of the flatworms and the resistance of their eggs to everything except direct flame.  They were also aggressive and unopposed in the ecology of the island, since they were both toxic and segmental regenerative – e.g. anything which consumed them would become parasitized and poisoned.  They can climb trees and thus enter areas thought to be safe.  They also lived duel lives as either parasites or apex predators.  Yes, you read that right.  A six-inch flatworm traveling at a brisk pace through the trees and able to climb to the top of the food chain is a nasty piece of work.  Did I mention that the island was once inhabited?  Everything was now on the nasty worms’ diet including the people.  Oh, they didn’t eat you all at once, and with proper medication, you could reduce the symptoms, but as long as you stayed on the island re-infection was a guarantee.

In a matter of a few short weeks, the worms overran the entire island and ate pretty much everything smaller than themselves.  When the food supply dwindled, they laid eggs in the sandy soil and waited for some unlucky creature to tread on them at which point they hatched and burrowed into the pads of their feet.  So first, the cute little critters disappeared, and nobody noticed.  Dogs and cats started to die agonizing deaths from eating infected rodents, which didn’t attract too much attention since veterinary assistance was generally given to larger animals such as cows and sheep.  One day the scientists were performing a count of the native snails in their protected areas and they spied black and red worms raining out of the trees.  Guess what those flatworms were eating?  You got it – those poor little snails.  By now, the flatworks had spread to every corner of the island, infecting nearly every creature and infiltrating water and food supplies.

The worms won.  The army evacuated everyone from the island and firebombed the place to ash, sterilizing and thereby making extinct not one but several dozen species at once.  The inhabitants will not be allowed to return for a number of years until all trace of the worms are certified absent.  They were quarantined for a long time as well. What did the environmentalists forget?  First, they forgot a parasitic wasp, which preyed on the adults, larvae, and eggs of the flatworm.  They also forgot a virus, which reduces the worm’s lifespan of several years to a few weeks.  They also forgot humility.  They were not bad people – in fact, they were rather nice and meant well, and had hopes for the sad little snails they wished to protect.  The scientists trying to protect the snails weren’t even directly responsible for the introduction of the flatworm, but instead it was brought in by a consultant scientist for the government who had single handedly brought about another ecological disaster elsewhere on the planet as well, but who is still well respected as an argent environmentalist.  I won’t name names, but he knows who he is.

Now this is not a general criticism of environmentalists – but rather a warning against hubris.  At the time of this writing, some environmentalists are seeding the south polar waters with iron-sulphate in an effort to create a plankton bloom to test the effect of carbon fixation on global warming.  Did anyone mention to the global warming advocates the error of their ways.  In the ‘60s, a certain military think tank proposed as a doomsday device, not an enormous fission or fusion bomb, but rather a wholesale seeding of the Atlantic conveyer with the same salt.  Interrupting the Atlantic conveyer would do several undesirable things.  Oh, yea it’ll stop global warming dead in its tracks, right along with civilization.  Let me tell you how.

From the moment the mineral salt hits the water the photosynthetic plankton will gobble it up to make chlorophyll.  As they do so they will also incorporate silica and carbon in their tissue.  When winter rolls around they will die and sink carrying with them the excess carbon as well as the iron.  Now normally, iron supplies come from the glacial runoff from Antarctica as well as the rivers of South America.  However, these levels are low in comparison to what is currently being dumped.  With a population boom, the salt balance in a the halline layer will be drastically recude by decomposition activity via secondary microbes which will fix the sodium and potassium on the sea bed instead of descending and travelling northward to create the conveyer’s natural current.  Yes, decomposition of the plankton by bacteria will fix the salt, which normally forms a dense and travelling layer.  If the layer is too thin then the flow will stop and the counter current generated in the tropics will not travel either.

Rain in the Eastern United States and Europe will cease and be replaced by snow and for a year or more until thing return to normal there will be no crops, and winter will persist around the calendar as the continental heat budget is slashed.  We know this because it happened before, in recent history in what is now called the year of the winter.

Monkeying around with global systems is the worst sort of hubris, and is dangerous as well.  Success for the scientist in the south polar waters would be a change in temperature globally, but for the rest of us it could mean disaster.  I hope the scientists down under have parkas when they come home, and enough sterno to go around as well.


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