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We all shrink until the flora and vegetation are above our heads, tall as trees from our new perspective. “Each plant is itself a wondrous system processing air, water and nutrients to feed all living things.”

The rich National Park in Russia in contrast to the barren homeland of elephants in Botswana, that the vegetation dilemma

The rich Arctic National Park in Russia contrast to the barren homeland of elephants in Botswana, that the vegetation dilemma (photo Credit: National Park Elephants)

Galacti, our magical roving reporter continues his lecture. “Together they form a greater and interconnected cycle that forms the basis for the cycle of life. Air containing oxygen, water cleansed of contaminants, and food carrying vital nutrients all come from plants. You also rely on plants for many of your accomplishments. Natural medicines, lumber, clothing and rubber are just a few examples. Without this web of life support, the Earth would be as deadly to man as the coldest depths of space.”

He’s right. Vegetation forms a pivot point of life on earth, a choke point, a point of vulnerability. It is the intermediary between the air and man, and between us and the Land. It refreshes our oxygen supply and absorbs the nitrogen that makes animal life possible.

This complex system of flora and vegetation support all life, including us humans. The degree to which it remains balanced and healthy is the degree to which human endeavors, civilization and life can be sustained.

This is the central issue of Audit of the Universe, the second book in The Explanation series: Is the system healthy? If not, are we working to repair it? If so, are our actions and decisions contributing to its continued health? Or are we pushing the system out of balance?

All Vegetation Small and Great

When Galacti returns us to normal size, I think for a moment that he’s made his first mistake in our presence. We continue to grow until the mightiest trees appear as grass beneath our feet, but then he reverses the action until we reach our regular height. I realize he was simply making a point.

“Vegetation on earth ranges from the smallest living organisms to the largest, with each possessing its own individual challenges and value.”

Small, but Not Forgotten

Phytoplankton is a microscopic vegetation that inhabits every drop of the top 100 meters of every ocean on the planet. It is the largest field of plant life in the world, alone, responsible for drawing as much CO2 out of the atmosphere as all land plants combined. The various species adapt to different climates and conditions, but all of them are being reduced by human pollution and the effects of global climate change.

The world’s population of phytoplankton has dropped by 40 percent in the past half-century, a fact with alarming implications both for the growing CO2 imbalance and for the ocean animals that rely on phytoplankton as their primary food source. That list includes sea stars, shrimp, snails, many species of fish and even whales.

Humanity has responded to this discovery with funding, research and experimentation into what is causing the phytoplankton to die-off and what we can do about it. We understand the importance of this microflora to the ecological balance of the earth. As of this writing, restoration projects have begun testing hypotheses…but we are just at the beginning of the journey toward a solution.

All About Algae

Algae is a slightly larger, but still very small, vegetation that can warn observers about the overall health of a water ecosystems. Under healthy conditions, algae provides oxygen and food for aquatic animals while growing in a controlled fashion.

Unhealthy conditions cause algae to “bloom” in a massive slick that destroys the entire local aquatic ecosystem. The slick blocks sunlight from reaching beneficial underwater plants, which can then no longer produce enough oxygen for local fish.

Even in healthy quantities, algae can become a hazard when interacting with human behavior. Algae eats and concentrates whatever substances are in the water. If it grows in an area that is taking in a safe amount of sulfuric acid from a nearby factory — say 1 part per million —  it will concentrate that dangerous toxin within its mass. (On a bright note, scientists are using this trait to create algae that can clean up toxic spills. More on that in a bit). The algae itself can then burn or poison swimmers, pets and livestock that swim in it. When the algae dies, the dangerously concentrated contaminant sinks to the bottom of the lake to poison and kill the plants growing there.

Algae blooms happen almost exclusively when we humans impact an area via careless importation or nutrient pollution. Careless importation happens when a species of algae is carried into a new waterway (for example, on the bottom of a boat). Each waterway has its own population of plants and animals which has interacted over centuries into a working balance. When a new species of algae enters that balanced system, it can thrive due to a higher nutrient content than it is accustomed to, or from an absence of natural predators. The newly arrived algae blooms, often supplanting or destroying the original population of the waterway.

Nutrient pollution is when runoff from artificial fertilizer used in nearby farms contaminates the water. We discussed the “mixed blessing” of fertilizer in Chapter 14: Land, but its effects on the water only illustrate how interconnected the whole system of the world is.

Algae can also be helpful and demonstrate the innovative ways we can interact with vegetation to improve the world and our lives—even to help balance some of the most destructive consequences of our often short-sighted decisions.

Algae have a short life cycle, which lets scientists experiment with genetic engineering and selective breeding faster than with many other species. We have used this speedy development to breed algae that eat waste, even hazardous waste, to clean up our mistakes. Microcloeus steenstrupii is just one example of algae grown to eat oil and heavy metals contaminating water, and has been used in spill cleanup worldwide. Another algae—c. moniliferum—can separate strontium from nuclear accidents and trap it where it does no further harm.

Recently, French designer Pierre Calleja has developed a lamp using bioluminescent algae as its light source, lighting urban areas as well as an electric lamp without requiring electricity. Even better, each algae lamp can absorb one ton of atmospheric carbon per year. Several other teams have developed algaes that can be used as biodiesels to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

The above is an excerpt from chapter 5 of Audit of the Universe to be published soon.


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