Friday 6/8: Mines, Caves, Fracking, and Oil Spills

For next week, I’m creating a tiny creature with a superpower. My tiny creature should be able to use that superpower to solve a problem in the world. The tiny creature should be made of natural, found, recycled, and upcycled materials that reflect both the problem and the superpower it uses to overcome it.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about explosive gases this week. Can’t imagine why.

Other than making me sick, the buildup of combustible gases and petrochemicals is responsible for mine explosions and collapses, contamination of water sources, and some really disturbing things happening to sea animals in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Kentucky Cave Shrimp–photo by Chip Clark via the United States Geological Survey

Shrimp should have eye sockets. Even the Kentucky cave shrimp, which has no real need to see anything, has vestigial eye sockets.

My mother was born in Louisiana, and some of my fondest childhood memories involve going crabbing and fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with my grandpa and his wife. I worry that BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill and the general unsustainability of modern fishing practices will mean that my niece’s generation or the next one will never be able to catch a crab off a pier unless it’s in some sort of curated park.

I’m from Kentucky, though not from a family with many ties to mining. Loretta Lynn and I have very little in common, really. Still, minor mine collapses and explosions (and the occasional major one) showed up on the local news with depressing regularity, and that’s part of the texture of my childhood. Georgia, my adopted home, has its own mining industry and is a major source of natural gas, though it’s not as pervasive as a part of the culture.

It’s obvious to me that if I were to pick a superpower that fits in with my background and allows me to solve the problems I worry about, it would be the ability to neutralize combustible gases and prevent disasters like the ones unfolding now.

The kindle edition of David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets contains a chapter on what advances in Earth-based biological research (especially research on extremophile organisms) may mean for the possibility of life on Mars, Venus, or Europa. Extremophiles are organisms—usually bacteria—that live in habitats that are severely hot, cold, dry, pressurized, or otherwise inhospitable to other life to such an extent that we thought it was impossible that life could exist there. To be honest, I don’t know enough about astronomy or biology to know how encouraging this news is for the possibility of non-terrestrial life—Grinspoon certainly has his own bias—but the fact that anything can live in a volcano or under 8 inches of permafrost is fascinating to me without the alien spin. Many of these organisms are existing in a state of suspended animation awaiting more favorable conditions; given hot or dry conditions (as in an explosion) they may enter a state like aestivation or diapause in which their metabolic processes slow or halt until they can be revived. This is why you can revive a lost colony of Sea Monkeys—brine shrimp lay eggs that don’t develop until the ideal conditions exist.

For my purposes, the most interesting thing that Mr. Grinspoon said was that, given the ongoing radical revision of our beliefs about where life can thrive, we could imagine that “any right-thinking Europan” might dismiss the possibility of life on Earth, because we don’t have the necessary methane. Grinspoon was writing in 2007. Since then, the Deepwater Horizon spill and unrelated research into an underwater area with unusual tectonic activity has revealed that methane-eating bacteria are alive at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.

Life that was recently considered unlikely on Earth but possible or even probable on a Jovian moon is cleaning up an oil spill.

Well, I smell a superhero origin story.

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Bees, being and blogging « Visual Thinking

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