October 21, 2013

Messenger Fish

Oarfish look like eels on steroids, reaching lengths of over 25 feet. They are a likely source of seafarers' tales of sea serpents and certainly look the part, with a long dorsal fin that shimmers as it swims through the water. Japanese folklore calls them messengers from the Sea God’s Palace, sent to warn of impending earthquakes. Scientists disparage such myths as old superstitions,  but well over a dozen oarfish washed up along the shores of Japan in the months before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

Rarely seen -- their normal habitat is in ocean waters up to 3,000 feet below the surface -- oarfish have been in the news after two washed up along the southern California coast in the last week. This is the same area of coastline that experienced a major upsurge in sea lion pups found washed ashore earlier this year, five times the normal number.

Scientists have been trying to get to the bottom of this, but so far have no specific answers, although the pups appeared to be starving. There is speculation that anchovies and sardines, a major source of food for sea lions, may have been killed off by cesium 137 from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, the one destroyed in the tsunami following the 2011 Tohoku earthqauke.

Does this mean that southern California is in for an earthquake? Or is this yet another man-made problem? Some say that the recent spate of oarfish deaths in southern California may be linked to offshore fracking operations. Fracking uses high pressure to crack rock formations to free up trapped oil. While the evidence is still far from all in, there have been suspicions that fracking can lead to earthquakes. At the very least, it sets up vibrations that may affect oarfish in the way an impending earthquake might.

Granted, this is all highly speculative, but this isn't: Unusual mass deaths of animals always raise a red flag, alerting scientists to previously undetected changes in the environment. And let's face it, man is changing the planet in a variety of known and unknown ways. These changes rattle the ecosystem, often leading to mass deaths of affected species that suddenly find there is no room for them in the biosphere. In fact, scientists warn we are approaching another era of mass extinctions, largely due to human activities, including global warming and habitat destroyed by an ever-expanding human footprint on the planet.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. There have been several mass extinctions in the past, and scientists assert that global warming is consistently associated with planet wide die-offs. Methane released from the oceans is seen as the tipping point, caused by warming ocean temperatures. This in turn leads to a runaway greenhouse effects, where methane heats the atmosphere, which in turn releases more methane. You get that deep into the curve and there is no turning back. Right now, we are only about 3 degrees of separation from that point on no return.

So as the dead sea-life piles up on our shores, think of them as messengers ... messengers bearing bad news ... messengers we are killing. My fear is that when we finally do get the message, it will be far too late.




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