Monday, July 31, 2006

Environmental Disasters and Room Service

There are days when newspapers and the web seem to spit out more scary stories than I can deal with – about relentless heat waves in Europe, plans for more coal-burning power plants (as if it’s our goal to make the climate worse), weird “solutions” to global warming, etcetera (not to mention wars without end). On days like this I’m tempted to consider the quote from Woody Allen at the top of this page to be not a joke but the truth.

How bad, for example, are conditions in coastal waters? Consider this story, about dying marine animals, from the Los Angeles Times:

They pick up the acid by eating anchovies and sardines that have fed on toxic algae. Although the algae have been around for eons, they have bloomed with extraordinary intensity along the Pacific coast for the last eight years.

The blooms are part of a worldwide pattern of oceanic changes that scientists attribute to warming waters, excessive fishing, and a torrent of nutrients unleashed by farming, deforestation and urban development.

The explosion of harmful algae has caused toxins to move through the food chain and concentrate in the dietary staples of marine mammals.

For the last 25 years, the federal government has tracked a steady upswing in beach strandings and mass die-offs of whales, dolphins and other ocean mammals on U.S. coasts.

More than 14,000 seals, sea lions and dolphins have landed sick or dead along the California shoreline in the last decade. So have more than 650 gray whales along the West Coast.

In Maine two years ago, 800 harbor seals, all adults with no obvious injuries, washed up dead, and in Florida the carcasses of hundreds of manatees have been found in mangrove forests and on beaches.

The surge in mortality has coincided with what Florida wildlife pathologist Greg Bossart calls a "pandemic" of algae and bacteria. Although some of the deaths defy easy explanation, telltale biotoxins have turned up in urine, blood, brains and other tissue.

On the other hand, at night lately we’ve been listening to a family of barred owls as they keep in touch with each other by whistling wheezily back and forth. The noise of cicadas during the day and katydids at night have replaced the songs of bluebirds and red-eyed vireos. Yesterday morning was beautiful at home, the sky deep blue and the clouds wispy and wind-blown, as if we were at the beach. My son, who is 8, was getting ready for his baseball game and asked me to make him an omelet, and he specified that I cook it in lots of butter. I was sitting in a chair on the deck, drinking coffee and reading the Times, and before I got up to start cooking, the phone rang.

My daughter, who is 13, was calling on her cellphone. From her room upstairs.

“Dad," she said, “can you make me some hot cocoa and bring it up to me?”

I had the wisdom to chose correctly, cooking the omelet the way he likes it and taking the cocoa off the stove before it got too hot.


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