Oxygen – The Global Pollutant

Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground weather site and a Ph.D.-holding meteorologist, recently posted a remarkable set of survey results on his blog.

The topic of the surveys was global climate change, and whether humans are responsible for the changes that we are now observing and are predicting (that word again, evolution fans) will occur in the near future.

What the surveys found was that, while 97% of scientists active in climate-change research agree with the premise that human activities are responsible for present-day global climate change, about half of the general public do not agree. Masters and his compadres fret, with good reason, about how difficult it appears to be to get the clear message from the science across to ol’ J. Q.

Maybe I can do just a little bit to help.

As Jeff M. relates in his blog, one of the arguments of the naysayers is “C’mon, you eggheads, give it a rest. No way can we puny humans throw up enough stuff to pollute the whole world!”

In rebuttal, I give you …

Three kinds of bluegreen algae

Pond scum.

That’s right.  Pond scum.  The slimy green stuff that grows in your swimming pool if you miss a treatment, or on your concrete walkway if you live someplace damp like Seattle in February, just waiting to trip up the letter carrier who’s delivering the legal complaint from when neighbor Rosenberg slipped on the stuff a month ago and scraped the skin off her arm.

Specifically, the kind of pond scum called blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria (in Greek, that means “blue bacteria”).  The pictures show three different kinds.  What’s that?  You didn’t know pond scum came in kinds? How ’bout tens of thousands of kinds (species)?  And counting?

Turns out, cyanobacteria have been around far longer than lawyers.  How long?  How ’bout three billion years, Felix? That’s billion with a B (yes, Mr. Bull, thousand million to you).  They’ve been around so long, the planet was hardly cool enough to hold them. 

Hell, the atmosphere didn’t even have any oxygen yet.  It was all tied up in things like water and carbon dioxide.  The Earth of three billion years ago was a great place to live, if you were a bacterium or a protozoon that grew by fermentation.

Then the cyanobacteria showed up. And they brought their damned photosynthesis with them. Started chewing up the water and carbon dioxide and spewing out …


Global catastrophe!!

The fermenters of the early Earth didn’t exactly have the option of going to their local health supplement stores and stocking up on antioxidants. Maybe the stores had all closed in a global economic downturn that coincided with the climate change caused by the oxygen pollution. Whatever. They died, or they evolved to tolerate, and eventually make use of, the oxygen. And the world was forever changed.

Right now, the Earth’s atmosphere contains about 20% oxygen. Most of the scientists whose work I know think that the Earth’s atmosphere reached approximately this oxygen level a billion years before present. Make that Before Present. Just in case anybody from the Geologists Union happens to read this. Anyway. This was long before there were any trees to save (they started showing up around 300 million years ago, or, in geological time, maybe last week or thereabouts).

Think about it. If a skinny layer of pond scum can do all this, what about us with our cars, and our power plants, and our jetliners, and our farting cows, and …

  O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions expressed are mine, as a private citizen.


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