Pollution: Still Learning

Scientists found PCBs and PBDEs in deep-sea critters, armyworms are on the march in Africa, and Mexico City’s air isn’t as clean as we’d hoped.

Rational concern seems reasonable.

  1. PCB in the Deep Blue Sea
  2. Armyworms March in Africa: and Asia, North America, – – –
  3. Mexico City’s Extended Car Ban: Good Idea, Nil Results
  4. Earth’s June 2015 Magnetic Field Breach
  5. Halley Base Relocated

Last week I talked about blaming our tools for our mistakes. (February 10, 2017)

This week I’ll revisit Lovecraft’s “placid island of ignorance,” sort of:

Dominion: Part of Our Job

(From Johnhart Studios, used w/o permission.)

I talked about Genesis 1:2627 and using our brains last week. (February 10, 2017)

Briefly, we have “dominion,” not ownership. God owns this place. As stewards, we have authority and responsibilities. (Genesis 1:29, 2:15; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 306308, 373, 2293, 2402)

Managing this world and its resources is part of our job. We can use what’s here, within reason: for ourselves, and preparing for future generations. (Catechism, 24152418, 2456)


I’ll be talking about PCBs and PBDEs found deep in Earth’s ocean, and Mexico City’s effort to control air quality.

Pollution and politics got entangled, so if you’re bracing for a diatribe against someone or something — please relax.

My interest in pollution and other environmental matters comes from living on Earth, and being a Catholic who understands our faith. I’m not conservative or liberal: just Catholic. (January 22, 2017; August 12, 2016)

Pollution is far from a new environmental issue. Scientists found very old soot on the roof of caves. What we’ve done to stay healthy, and how effective we’ve been, has changed over the millennia.

I don’t know how effective England’s King Edward I 1272 proclamation, banning sea-coal burning in London, was.

Romans used chimneys in bakeries, Hamelin Plantagenet apparently had a chimney built into the new Conisbrough Castle keep, the technology didn’t catch on until later, and that’s another topic.

We’re still cleaning up the mess left from lapses of judgment during the Industrial Revolution, but factories weren’t the only polluters.

The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 gave way to Dr. Henry Antoine Des Voeux’s 1905 “Fog and Smoke” paper, which added “smog” to my language.

Basically, pollution is a real problem, it’s not new, and we generally try to control it. That’s a good thing, because soot and its contemporary equivalents can cause health problems.1

“God’s Gift to Everyone”

(From NASA, via Astrobiology Magazine, used w/o permission.)

Okay: pollution is real, and isn’t good for our health. Is trying to do something about it okay?

There’s that “in the world but not of the world” thing in John 15:1819, 17:1416, and Romans 12:2. But I’m quite sure that doesn’t mean we should ignore something that’s hurting folks.

I agree with Genesis 1:31: this world is “very good.” Respect for God should include respect for “…the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things….” (Catechism, 339)

Exodus 20:15, Leviticus 19:11, and Deuteronomy 5:19 say that stealing is a bad idea, and we shouldn’t do it. I think that makes sense.

More to the point, the ‘don’t steal’ principle goes beyond theft.

I’m expected to exercise “justice and charity” in how I use earthly goods. Private property is a good idea: but I must remember that my neighbors, and folks who haven’t been born yet, share this world with me. (Catechism, 24012406, 2415)

“…The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole….”
(“Caritas in Veritate,” Benedict XVI (June 29, 2009))

1. PCB in the Deep Blue Sea

(From NPG, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Banned chemicals persist in deep ocean
Paul Rincon, BBC News (February 2, 2017)

Chemicals banned in the 1970s have been found in the deepest reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a new study shows.

“Scientists were surprised by the relatively high concentrations of pollutants like PCBs and PBDEs in deep sea ecosystems.

“Used widely during much of the 20th Century, these chemicals were later found to be toxic and to build up in the environment.

The results are published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution….”

PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) and PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are organic compounds. They’re marvelously useful. PCBs, first manufactured in 1881, kept electrical equipment cool, was used in carbonless copy paper and heat transfer fluids.

It’s also quite toxic, which is why various governments started banning the stuff. That was in the 1970s, around the time PBDE production started in America.

The stuff makes a good flame retardant. That’s why we put it in so many building materials, electronics, furnishings, motor vehicles, airplanes, plastics, polyurethane foams, and textiles. I talked about fire, humans, and learning, last week. (February 10, 2017)

It didn’t take nearly as long to realize that PBDE was toxic, too. Still, it looked like a good idea at the time.

Besides being toxic, PCBs and PBDEs are notoriously difficult to get rid of. Get rid of safely, that is. PCBs will break down at very high temperatures: into other toxic compounds, so that’s not a good idea.

They’ll react with various chemicals, and scientists are learning if that’ll lead to practical disposal technology. Other scientists have found microorganisms that eat PCBs: slowly. So will some ligninolytic fungi.2

Quite a few folks think turning PCBs and PBDEs into less-toxic stuff is important, so I think there’s reasonable hope that we’ll find a solution.

Meanwhile, I gather that most of us have stopped making the chemicals; so the problem now is mostly dealing with what’s already out there.

We’re Still Learning

(From National Centers for Environmental Information, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Earth’s surface, elevation map.)

Some textbooks, particularly the older ones, I grew up with showed ocean floors as vast plains, covered with of silt and organic debris which had drifted down over the aeons.

It made sense. Quite a few scientists had decided that Arthur Holmes’ research was right, and Earth is billions, not millions, of years old.

Then, as now, some folks insisted that the universe was created on the nightfall preceding October 23, 4004 BC. I’ve talked about science, truth, and using the brains God gave us, before. Often. (October 28, 2016; July 29, 2016; August 28, 2016)

The idea that parts of Earth’s crust had been moving hadn’t sunk in yet, so there was little reason to think that the seafloor was anything but a huge sedimentary deposit.

On the other hand, we did know about a few shallow spots. Matthew Fontaine Maury did some groundbreaking — waterbreaking?? — research in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Using soundings taken in 1853, he noticed comparatively shallow water between Newfoundland and Ireland.

Folks were planning a transatlantic telegraph cable at the time, so in 1854 Maury wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy describing a “telegraph plateau” along the proposed route.

It seemed too good to be true: and was. There is shallow water along the route. But depth in the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone, discovered in 1963, varies from 400 fathoms to nearly 2500 fathoms.

We were learning a lot, fast, about Earth in the 1950s and 60s. We didn’t have all the answers then, and still don’t. ‘Science news’ has remained occasionally more imaginative than accurate. (January 27, 2017; January 20, 2017; December 16, 2016)

We have, however, learned that critters live just about everywhere on Earth’s surface: including the deepest ocean trenches. We’re still not sure how long toxins stay in food chains and webs. But as I keep saying, we’re still learning.3

2. Armyworms March in Africa: and Asia, North America, – – –

(From CABI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The armyworm burrows into cobs”
(BBC News))

Fall armyworm ‘threatens African farmers’ livelihoods’
Helen Briggs, BBC News (February 6, 2017)

Scientists are calling for urgent action to halt the spread of a pest that is destroying maize crops and spreading rapidly across Africa.

“The fall armyworm poses a major threat to food security and agricultural trade, warns the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi).

“It says farmers’ livelihoods are at risk as the non-native insect threatens to reach Asia and the Mediterranean.

“The Food and Agriculture Organization plans emergency talks on the issue. …”

Amyworm is our name for several sorts of moth larvae: Spodoptera frugiperda, fall armyworm, is this article’s featured creature. It’s native to the Americas, and gets its name by being active mostly in autumn; and late summer, in the southern United States.

Spodoptera exempta, African armyworm, wreaks havoc in eastern Africa, Yemen, some Pacific islands, and parts of Australia.

Mythimna separata, Northern armyworm, does the same in China, Japan, South-east Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Eastern Australia, New Zealand, and some Pacific Islands.

Mythimna unipuncta, the “true” armyworm, is particularly common in North America. It’s in the Hawaiian Islands, some areas of South America, southern Europe, North Africa, the Sahel region of Africa, Central Asia and eastern Bangladesh, and east Africa, too.

The critters get their “armyworm” name by ‘marching’ through crops, defoliating the area, then moving on or burrowing to pupate and become moths.

The good news is that folks have developed quite a few ways to deal with them: picking the caterpillars off by hands, setting ducks loose in the fields, blacklight and pheromone traps for adults, and spraying pesticides.

We’ve been looking for alternatives to pesticides, which led scientists to several viruses, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and a bacterium, that will kill armyworms. Quite a few of the critters die, eventually: but not before eating most of a season’s crop.4

A Digression on Maize, Mainly Linguistic

(From AndrewMT, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Maize production, worldwide.)

Maize,” by the way, is from the Americas, too. The first domestic variety was developed where Mexico is now, some 10,000 years ago. I don’t know what folks called it then.

About five centuries back, folks speaking Taíno told Spanish-speaking folks about mahiz. By the time the word got to me, my Upper-Midwest American English habits have me pronouncing it the same way I do “maze.”

Corn/maize/mahiz was developed long before the Olmecs, a name we got from Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

“Aztec” is what happened to the Nahuatl words aztecatl (singular) and aztecah (plural) when Alexander von Humboldt’s travel plans were disrupted; and that’s yet another topic.

I generally say “corn” when I mean maize. So, I understand, do most other Americans. Also Australians and New Zealanders.

The Oxford dictionary, being British, defines corn as “the chief cereal crop of a district, especially (in England) wheat or (in Scotland) oats;” or “the grain of a cereal crop.” They acknowledge my meaning, too.

3. Mexico City’s Extended Car Ban: Good Idea, Nil Results

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The study finds that restricting cars on Saturdays doesn’t alleviate the dirty air”
(BBC News))

Car ban fails to curb air pollution in Mexico City
Matt McGrath, BBC News (February 2, 2017)

Banning cars on Saturdays in Mexico City hasn’t reduced air pollutants, according to a new study.

“Scientists had expected that limiting driving at the weekend would reduce vehicle emissions by 15%.

“But this analysis looking at pollution measurements in a city with serious air quality problems, found no discernible effect.

“Residents got round the restrictions by car pooling, using taxis and purchasing extra vehicles, researchers say.

“Back in 1992, the UN declared Mexico City the world’s most polluted city….”

First, the good news. Folks apparently have been cooperating with Mexico City’s Hoy No Circula program, started in 1989. It put limits on which cars could be used on weekdays.

Now, the not-so-good news: Mexico City is still on the now-drained Lake Texcoco lakebed, surrounded by mountains. That’s not going to change any time soon, and neither is the city’s comparative lack of natural ventilation.

Stuff that gets into Mexico City’s air tends to stay there, at least for a while. Los Angeles, another city lying in a basin, has similar problems.

That may explain why folks speaking Gabrielino called the Los Angeles basin “iyáangẚ.” Depending on who’s talking, that means “poison oak place” or “the valley of smoke.”

Then there’s what folks called the site of another American city, back in the day: “shikaakwa.” By the time English-speaking Americans tried saying something a French explorer wrote, the word was “Chicago.” Apparently it means “wild garlic.”

I give folks speaking Miami-Illinois languages credit for some sense of poetry, and suspect that a more idiomatically-accurate translation of shikaakwa as a place name for what we called the Chicago Portage would be “big stinky.”

Expectations, Speculation, and Hope

(From ComputerJA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A privately-owned museum in Mexico: the Museo Soumaya Plaza Carso’s entrance floor.)

The researchers said they found “no evidence that the expansion was successful in getting drivers to switch to lower-emitting forms of transportation.”

Expecting a 15% reduction in air pollution after adding Saturday to the Hoy No Circula program made sense: assuming that all of the measured pollution was from automobiles. One-sixth of six days is 16.67%, which is pretty close to 15%.

Also assuming that the city’s alternative vehicles were less polluting per person than privately-owned cars.

The researchers say the city’s public transit is slow and uncomfortable, which wouldn’t encourage use. I’m not convinced that public transit is necessarily less polluting than cars.

I strongly suspect that part of Mexico City’s air pollution is from the city’s 50,000 or so industries.5

Don’t get me wrong: I think Mexico City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities can be fine places to live. After we get some engineering and social issues sorted out.

4. Earth’s June 2015 Magnetic Field Breach

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: The Earth’s magnetosphere protects the planet from a continuous flow of cosmic radiation”
(BBC News))

Scientists record breach in magnetic field
Siva Parameswaran, BBC News (February 2, 2017)

Scientists have recorded the events that unfolded after the Earth’s magnetic shield was breached.

“Openings in the planet’s magnetic field are not uncommon, but it is rarer to get the opportunity to gather data while such an event is in progress.

“A cosmic ray monitoring facility recorded a burst of cosmic rays associated with the opening.

“The magnetic field breach was the result of charged particles from the Sun striking the Earth at high speed.

“The GRAPES-3 muon telescope located at the Cosmic Ray Laboratory (CRL) in Ooty, southern India, recorded a burst of galactic cosmic rays of about 20 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) on 22 June 2015.

“‘In this case the magnetic field was breached for only two hours and then returned back to normal. The magnetic field strength reduced only by 2%,’ Dr Sunil Gupta, lead scientist at the CRL told the BBC….”

Scientists called the “breach” a “transient weakening of Earth’s magnetic shield” associated with “a severe G4-class geomagnetic storm.” It happened when a coronal mass ejection reached Earth.

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are plasma, mostly electrons and protons, pushed out from the sun. They’re like clumps or gusts in the Solar wind, and were almost certainly happening long before we showed up.

Over the last few billion years, a very great many hit Earth’s magnetosphere. Or, when they hit while our field was reversing, Earth’s atmosphere.

What’s significant about this collision between a CME and Earth’s magnetosphere is that scientists had instruments set up, recording data, while it happened

The first CME we know of is the Solar storm of 1859.

We didn’t call it that until much later, after folks had learned what to look for.

Making Connections, 1860-1971

James Clerk Maxwell published his first set of differential equations around 1860.

Wilhelm Röntgen discovered Röntgen rays, winning the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. We call that bandwidth of electromagnetic radiation X-rays today.

In 1902 Oliver Heaviside modified Maxwell’s equations, and said that we could look for a layer in the upper atmosphere that reflects some radio waves. Arthur E. Kennelly apparently said pretty much the same thing at the same time.

Edward Victor Appleton got the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing that the Kennelly-Heaviside layer was real: despite our having to learn something new about physics in the process, and that’s yet again another topic.

On December 14, 1971, Orbiting Solar Observatory 7’s SEC caught a 256 × 256 pixel image which was eventually viewed by David Roberts, an electronics technician working at the United States Naval Research Laboratory.

Roberts thought the bright spot was a glitch, until another image showed the spot — which had moved farther away from the sun. Scientists confirmed that this was the first clear detection of a coronal mass ejection.

Back in 1859, Röntgen rays and robot spaceships were generations in the future. It wasn’t until 1953 that scientists started noticing connections between sparky telegraph poles, spectacular auroral displays, and what two amateur astronomers had noticed.

September, 1859: Sparky Telegraph Poles

Just before noon, September 1, 1859, two amateur astronomers, Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson, noticed a bright flare on the sun.

About 17.6 hours later, Balfour Stewart at the Kew Observatory magnetometer recorded a “magnetic crochet.”

Auroras of September 1 and 2 that year were spectacular. Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains started fixing breakfast, mistaking the glow for morning’s light.

Folks in the northeastern U.S. could read newspapers by the aurora’s light, which was visible in sub-Saharan Africa, Mexico, Queensland, and places even closer to the equator.

“…Between 12 and 1 o’clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance.”
(Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser (September 3, 1859) via Wikipedia)

Some telegraph operators got electric shocks, telegraph pylons sparked, and some telegraph equipment stayed operational after their plugs were pulled.6

Lloyd’s of London and Making Progress

Shocked telegraph operators aside, the 1859 phenomenon didn’t affect people’s lives. Since then, we’ve built continent-spanning power grids and communication networks.

Lloyd’s of London produced a report “for general information purposes only” in 2013.

They figuring that a similar event would cost between 0.6 and 2.6 trillion dollars. That’s just in the United States; from damaged electrical equipment, power outages, and communication breakdowns.

We still don’t know exactly how coronal mass ejections work, what causes them, or how they interact with Earth’s magnetic field. For that matter, we’re far from certain how Earth’s magnetic field affects conditions here on the surface.6

That’s not, I think, a reason to be fearful. We’ve never known all there is to know about how this universe works, but we’ve been learning: and have recently discovered many previously-unknown questions. I see that as progress.

5. Halley Base Relocated

(From BAS/M.Krzysztofowicz, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“All eight modules were towed across the ice shelf to the new location further from the sea”

(From BAS/P.Bucktrout, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The move was made possible by a hydraulic leg and ski system ”

(From BAS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The central red module weighs over 200 tonnes”
(BBC News))

UK completes Antarctic Halley base relocation
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (February 2, 2017)

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has completed the move of its Halley research station.

“The base is sited on the floating – and moving – Brunt Ice Shelf, and had to be relocated or face being dumped in the ocean.

“Tractors were used to tow the eight modules that make up the futuristic-looking Halley 23km further ‘inland’.

“Last month, BAS announced it would ‘mothball’ the station for the duration of the coming Antarctic winter….

“…It has two key functions. One is as a support link to deep-field exploration of the Antarctic interior. And the second – and main task – is as a centre of research itself….

“…Present day work also includes investigations into ‘space weather’ – the impacts that occur when particles and magnetic fields billowing away from the Sun collide with Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere….”

I talked about the Brunt Ice Shelf and Halley Research Station’s move a few weeks back. (January 20, 2017)

Before I forget: the BAS website includes a “Halley Research Station – module layout” page and interactive 360° tour.

Normally there would be a crew of about 14 staying at the base over winter. I suppose BAS wants to give scientists more time to study the new cracks in Brunt Ice Shelf, before committing an overwinter crew. It’s a long winter night there. Sundown comes April 29, and it’ll be dark until dawn: August 13.

Nobody calls Antarctica home, not yet. But around 1,000 technicians and scientists stay for the winter at permanent bases. Antarctica’s population is usually about 4,000 in summer: including a few tourists.

Faith, Fear, and Lovecraft

I’ve mentioned Lovecraft’s “placid island of ignorance” before. (December 16, 2016)

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

My lively interest in our expanding knowledge of God’s visible creation isn’t, I think, strictly required. But studying natural processes is a good idea. It’s one way we can learn more about God. (Catechism, 3135)

Some of our Saints, like St. Albertus Magnus and St. Hildegard of Bingen, were scientists back when science was still called natural philosophy. (October 30, 2016; July 29, 2016)

The Catholic version of faith is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

Deliberately maintaining ignorance of God’s creation seems — illogical. And that’s still another topic.

More ‘science’ posts:

1 About pollution:

2 PCBs, PBDEs, and deep-sea critters:

3 Earth’s ocean and life:

4 Armyworms:

5 Mexico City, mostly:

6 Coronal mass ejections, the 1859 storm, and all that:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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