Saturday, August 25, 2012

I *Heart* Ecology

You know what I really love about science in general, and Ecology in particular? The way that upon close examination, everything you thought was a boundary or an edge is really more of a melding, a smear, a fade from one thing to another. Ecology is about relationships and interactions, how whole systems balance and how tiny elements of those systems that you wouldn't think are connected at all turn out to be interdependent in some roundabout way that just hadn't been understood before. 

Take, for example, a stream or river. Where is the edge of a stream or river? Well, obviously, where the water surface touches the soil, right? Wrong. There isn't an edge, there's a blur. The stream fluctuates in height daily, seasonally, annually. There are specific elevation markers relating to streams called the "bank-full," "Ordinary High Water" and "Ordinary Low Water." The space between is often referred to as "tideland," "intertidal land," or even "submersible land," and it is vital to the life cycles of many species because it is so subject to this pattern of oxygenation and submergence, and that makes it highly productive for plants and algae (primary producers as we eco-nerds call them), invertebrates, and the species that consume them. This is why you always see shorebirds out at the water's edge when low tide hits, when mudflats are exposed.

And try this on for size: What if you think of a stream or river not only as as melted snowpack and rain water flowing downhill, but as groundwater pushing out in a low spot on a slope and coming to the surface before running downhill? Again, the boundary of what constitutes a stream is indistinct. Depending on the water table and the geology of the spot you're looking at, that is, depending on what kind of rocks, gravel, sand, or silt make up the ground in that area, and in what kind of layers, and in what topographic (hilly) arrangement, you might not need any rain or snow at all to see a small stream or trickle of water pushing out. There's this whole range of interplay between groundwater and surface water, and portions of a stream may get more water from the ground than from the sky. The water in the ground flows with the stream, merges with the stream. Really, it's part of the stream.

One of my favorite episodes of RadioLab is "A War We Need," and if you're unfamiliar with RadioLab, go give it a listen. It's full of interesting investigations into seemingly simple questions, and it isn't always science oriented, but when it is they present it so well that everyone can enjoy it. They are very good at what they do.

In this episode, they talk about the chemical warfare practiced by phytoplankton and viruses in the ocean. More specifically, single-celled plants called Coccolithophores, so populous it boggles the imagination, battling viruses in the oceans, dying, sending out warning signals as they expire warning others to change their own DNA to protect themselves. And this battle is wide-ranging enough that the carnage results in discolorations of the oceans so large you can see them from space, enough that teensy carcasses from these battles pile up to form geological layers on the ocean floor. The battle rages back and forth, one side getting the upper hand, then the other, and with every new blooming phase of the Coccolithophores, there's a massive production of oxygen. These oceanic wars of phytoplankton are responsible for about half the oxygen we breathe. 

Ecology and nature are full of connections and inter-dependencies and cycles like this. Our world and our very existence is full of tide and breath, waxing and waning, death and regeneration, beautifully executed struggles and dances made up of life cycles and natural processes flowing around and through each other like an epic friggin' ballet . . . and it is beautiful beyond words.  

GodDAMN science is cool. 

I leave you with this bit of . . . well, poetry, from Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the more brilliant minds in the world today.  

If that doesn't hit you somewhere deep, you need to work on developing some depth.

1 comment:

  1. Huh. deGrasse Tyson and Sagan have totally opposite views on the meaningfulness that the size of the universe imparts, yet they do reach much the same conclusion, don't they?