How on Earth Will the Planet Survive the Ecological Disasters Created by Humans?

Based on an original post as a facebook note in response to concerned questions that arose from friends and students about the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico:  

How on Earth Will the Planet Survive the Ecological Disasters Created by Humans?

To all who are concerned about man-made ecological disasters: 

All systems, physical, chemical, biological, cosmological….strive for equilibrium. The conservation of matter, mass, charge, momentum, energy…requires that system processes proceed in all space/time frames as each system struggles to achieve a “local” and universal equilibrium.

Tar Creek Superfund Site, Picher, OK

Tar Creek Superfund Site, Picher, OK

No matter what happens to one side of the equation, something will be added or taken away from the other side to achieve a balance.  There is an ongoing flux as each system moves irreversibly forward in time and space…energy is converted to matter and matter to energy and so forth as both are conserved.

Dynamic Planet:

stormrip up clasts found in the Grinnell Formation (2.0 bya) in Glacier National Park, cdp

stormrip up clasts found in the Grinnell Formation (2.0 bya) in Glacier National Park, cdp

The planet that we live on is very dynamic, dangerous, beautiful, diverse…..all processes, at all levels are irreversible as each system is driven by the need to reach equilibrium. The planet has been here for 4.6 billion years and will be here for at least that long in the future.  In these 4.6 billion years, it has gone through many, many changes. Human existence is but a blink in this history.

fossilized ripple marks in the Appekunny Formation of Glacier National Park

fossilized ripple marks in the Appekunny Formation of Glacier National Park

No matter what humans do to the planet, the planet will heal itself through natural processes.  The original process is not reversed, but instead is moved always forward until the system equilibrates once more.   It may take tens or hundreds or thousands of years, but equilibrium is eventually reached over and over again.

The BP Oil Spill:   On April 20, 2010, The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and caught fire, killing 11 workers.  The underwater rupture flowed for 87 days, until it was capped on 15 July 2010.  The total discharge is estimated at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 m3).    The BP Oil Spill is a tremendous ecological disaster but it was not the first or the last.  It certainly was the largest of it’s kind in history. (see this report for details,

On June 3, 1979, the 2 mile deep exploratory well, IXTOC I, blew out in the Bahia de Campeche, 600 miles south of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil inundated the barrier islands of Texas, including Mustang, Island, TX. To the surprise of soil scientists studying the area, there was a balloon in the population of certain aerobic and anaerobic bacteria species. These species were digesting the oil at an accelerated rate. After the bacteria fed on the oil and the food source was gone, they died off. The process is called bio-degradation. This process is actively underway in the Gulf as we speak, naturally.

Nature Heals Itself:   Bio-remediation that we know of today actually got its beginnings in this discovery. This discovery led to bio-remediation practices that are still used today to clean up oil and gas leaks and spills inland. The discovery of the biochemical role of anaerobic bacteria in the breakdown of hydrocarbons ultimately led to the science of producing ethanol, also using anaerobic bacteria that prefer to digest complex carbohydrates (from either corn or other biomass) to produce gases.

Life from Death: Even though these  types of spills are  catastrophic disasters to the wildlife ecosystems and to the humans who base their livelihoods on business associated with the natural resources, nature will set things right again…eventually. One only needs to look at catastrophic events like Mt. St. Helen’s to know this is true. All life was wiped clean from the area during that eruption.

Only microbial life existed beneath the soils. In 1980 it was a devastated terrain devoid of life. I visited in 1991 and it was in full bloom with mountain wildflowers and wildlife. Beautiful flowers were sprouting up from the ash. I have visited almost yearly since and as of 2009 it is full of beautiful diverse life. The scars are still there, but nature has healed itself.

So, even though we are angry about the incompetence of the oil industry and the American government for their lack of oversight and regulations, do not despair about nature. 6733_219054775374_6104381_nNature takes care of itself. The species that created the devastation will suffer the long term consequences of their gluttony, greed and selfish exploitation of the natural resources.


Good Stewards: The only thing that humans are truly in control of is our own behavior and the way we think and view the world around us. We must understand it and respect it if we want to survive as a species. 🙂

Regulations are Necessary:   As we humans extract the earth’s resources and use them for our energy needs, we must keep in mind that using methods and instruments, which are designed to minimize the effects on surrounding ecosystems is not just necessary for the animals and plants who live in that environment, but also to protect human beings from the rebound effects of polluted and toxic food supplies, ground and surface water systems.

By extension, here is an additional response which sums up these types of ecological disasters…

Response written to a friend of mine on the BP oil disaster-who is really to blame?

June 5, 2010 at 9:45am
I understand the sadness and frustration you feel regarding the devastation in the Gulf . It is heart wrenching. But as scientists, we also understand that Earth systems have a way of righting things eventually.
Every system strives for equilibrium. Even though the marshlands are essentially destroyed and that ecosystem has been damaged beyond repair by us, the life there will go on. It will change though in response to the spill. The species that are able to survive will adapt or migrate to another area. Life will go on regardless of the stupidity of this species.

There are anaerobic bacteria at work right now, happily digesting the hydrocarbons. Their populations will bloom and then die when the hydrocarbons are gone. The hurricane season may also help to disperse the oil…. I am just as sickened as others by the irresponsible human behavior that has led to this disaster, but I do not blame BP, the government, etc. I blame our wasteful, ignorant, greedy society.
WE consume. WE waste.
WE, as a society, are the ones who lack the intelligence to elect people with the political will to change things.
We also do not choose to make the personal changes which would lead to conservation.
WE drive the energy market and we complacently go about our everyday lives of consuming and wasting in an irresponsible way. While there are folks like you and me, who do our best, as a society, WE do not.
So, I have decided to support the people trying their best to save the animals, cap the well, etc. I think the positive from this may be that this selfish society will wake up and the government will make sweeping changes to the industry and our infrastructure. The loss could be an eventual gain for our future society and all life.

Sciencegranny 🙂 D.Phillips

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