Happy Birthday Galileo Galilei — greetings from Mariana Trench

Galileo Galilei and his telescope

It was February 15, like it is today, when 453 years ago, in Pisa, Italy, Galileo Galilei was born. No need to say a lot about him, he was one of the most emblematic scientists ever lived in this planet, who made pioneering observations, constructed a telescope and was also accused twice of heresy by the church for his beliefs. I remembered him today not only for his birthday but for one of his most famous quotes. “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”

I was thinking about this quote when I learnt some astonishing recent news. I am afraid those news might have been lost or they have not found their way to our brain or have not triggered the proper responses, so allow me to recap.

Toxic pollution in the deepest part of the oceans

The news are unbelievable. Scientists have discovered “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution in the most remote and inaccessible place on the planet, the 10 km deep Mariana trench! This is considered as the deepest part of the world’s oceans, located in the western Pacific Ocean, to the east of the Mariana Islands. The trench reaches a maximum-known depth of 10,994 metres at a small slot-shaped valley in its floor known as the Challenger Deep. Two types of toxic industrial chemicals (banned from late 1970s) known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) were found. How those pollutants arrived in the deepest and probably the remotest part of our planet? According what was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, POPs arrived at Mariana Trench as dead animals and particles of plastic degraded in water. By the way, high concentrations of POPs have been also found in Inuit People, whales and dolphins.

Comparing Mariana Trench with other natural and human made structures
Physical exercise becomes unhealthy in 15 cities

According recent reports, in at least 15 cities, air pollution has now become so dangerous that the expected health impacts of half an hour of cycling outweighs the benefits of exercise altogether. The Guardian reports that, based on the study published in the journal Preventive Medicine , in cities such as Allahabad in India, or Zabol in Iran, the long-term damage from inhaling fine particulates could outweigh the usual health gains of cycling after just 30 minutes. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this tipping point happens after just 45 minutes a day cycling along busy roads. In Delhi or the Chinese city of Xingtai, meanwhile, residents pass what the researchers call the “breakeven point” after an hour. Other exercise with the same intensity as cycling — such as slow jogging — would have the same effect.

There are other similar astonishing news.

We have already achieved the first mamal extinction due to Climate Change: Bramble Cay melomys, has been wiped-out from its only known location.

Plasticised seabirds are becoming the new normal! Seabirds are declining faster than any other group of birds, with plastic ingestion and associated contaminants linked to negative impacts on marine wildlife, including more than 170 seabird species.

Recently, scientists in Norway found more than 30 plastic bags and other plastic waste inside the stomach of a whale stranded off the coast.

So what’s happening?

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015
There is no “natural world” anymore

I believe that all the previous, and any other similar examples, outline a new emerging reality. Some call it Anthropocene and they mean a new proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. No matter how we will call it, this is a new era and we need to create a new mindset to understand it, analyse it and finally manage it. I consider two major characteristics of this new era.

  1. As it is demonstrated by the plastic pollution in Mariana trench, human-made pollution gradually covers even the most remote parts of our planet. To put it in another way, nothing will be untouched by our vast Ecological Footprint. We have to stop thinking about pollution as something that disturbs and violates the natural world. Pollution is an integral part of the natural world, even at the deepest parts of the oceans!
  2. The Human Ecological Footprint is becoming rapidly bigger and that accelerates disruptive changes in any ecosystem of our planet. This is also the root cause for the acceleration of all the relevant consequences like climate change, ice-melting, extreme weather phenomena etc.

As the authors of the article “Ecological consequences of human niche construction: Examining long-term anthropogenic shaping of global species distributions” put it “Pristine’ landscapes simply do not exist and, in most cases, have not existed for millennia.” Humans have been altering the natural world for millennia, long before the 15th century dawn of the Age of Discovery, when European societies mastered long-distance ocean navigation and began to spread their cultures, animals and diseases to new continents. The result of these changes, accumulating over time, has been “the creation of extensively altered, highly cosmopolitan species assemblages on all landmasses,” the authors write in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In this new era, we have two options.

The first option is to try to re-balance the planet, to try to restore ecosystems and bring them back in a kind of equilibrium, that according the most recent scientific findings never existed. Ecosystems have always been in a constant state of flux, change and disruptive phenomena were not rare nor unusual. Humans may have dramatically speeded that up, but novelty is the norm in ecosystems.

The second option is to reconsider our conservation approach and principles. Novel ecosystems, like the ones that are currently created with human interventions, cannot be dismissed as degraded versions of proper ecosystems, nor can alien species be demonized simply for not belonging. Richard Hobbs of the University of Western Australia, in his great book Novel Ecosystems argues that if novelty and change is the norm, does it make sense for the growing business of ecosystem restoration to try and recreate static historic ecosystems? By doing that, you are not creating a functioning ecosystem; you are creating a museum exhibit that will require constant attention if it is to survive.

I think that the second option deserves much more respect and it seems to me that it can drive a new set of tools, indicators and scientific approaches that will be more suitable for our world. Frankly speaking, our current dominant models need a substantial shift towards this direction.

I think it’s time to rethink what was really discovered in the deep, dark, cold water of Mariana trench. It was not one more form of pollution, it was the urgent need to shift our understanding about the planet and the way we should manage it.

We tend to think that we push planetary limits into their extremes, something that is certainy true for Climate Change and Resource Management. But at the same time, we create a different planet that sooner or later will result in different qualitative and quantitative limits. If we want to manage the new reality, maybe we need to get rid of the limits of the traditional eco-conservation way of thinking.

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” Galileo Galilei