Life on Earth and its Tenuous Nature—One Instance


Without doubt researching astrobiological and science-based literature (while coming to a definition for life) and attempting a readable work might have turned into a tall tale.

What makes defining life so hard is the diverse, contrary, and seeming ease with which biological experimentation is performed. As some may atest, life exists in places that would seem inhospitable to the hardiest of souls. One place in particular is in the shallower waters off California at the Farallon islands (a former nuclear waste site). Although some current estimates put the amount of radioactive isotopes as negligible, we have placed ourselves in harm’s way so often to warrant introspection.

Fig. 1 Barrel and Crab from Farallon islands (figure is a composite—photo is available from the website listed in the following paragraph)—

From the website—(http://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/farallon/radwaste.html) –I quote: More than 47,800 drums and other containers of low-level radioactive waste were dumped onto the ocean floor west of San Francisco between 1946 and 1970; many of these are in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. . . . The interagency cooperation among the USN, USGS, and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary has provided the technological, scientific, and practical expertise to develop a cost-effective and time-efficient method to locate the barrels of radioactive waste. This method can be used to locate containers of hazardous waste over a regional scale in other ocean areas such as Boston Harbor and the Kara Sea in the Arctic.

A technical report from the California Fish & Game Department (from 1986) tells of different species fish that have been seen to dwell at or near the dump site ( http://aquaticcommons.org/722/1/Technical_Report_1987_No._55_A.pdf ). The report details that while some species exclusively dwell within a 100 mile radius of the site, there are other species of fish that make all the North American coast their “home.” By the lack of public outcry, it would seem that the three cited sources paint a benign picture of the site. And, a report authored by the USGS, NOAA, EPA and the British Geological Survey (2001) http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2001/of01-062/ again paints the same ambiguously benign picture of the site—with the exceptions being a higher-than-normal amount of certain isotopes and the majority of dump was not or could not be accessed. All of this bears mention due to the recent news of “radioactive” tuna off the California coast (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/22/radioactive-fish_n_2743899.html ) because the blame is pointed at the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011) and the following news release ( http://news.yahoo.com/fukushimas-radioactive-ocean-plume-reach-us-waters-2014-132118620.html ) points to a 2014-2016 peak of radioactive water reaching United States.

In spite of the furor spawned from the Fukushima disaster, we seem to ignore that there may have been prior precedent? It is as if one had overlooked past failure—only to repeat it in the near future. Further investigation reveals an article from the 1990 L.A. Times ( http://articles.latimes.com/1990-11-19/news/mn-3595_1_radioactive-waste ) confirming the presence of radioactive waste off the coast of Northern California.

Analytically speaking, it is hard to place a specific causal factor for the tuna catch, but it should be noted that we really didn’t learn our lesson the first time around.

The reasons for the above approach is to demarcate the public perception of (1) how science fails to protect the public (2) how the public (in general) has lulled itself into a complacent state around science and education. The issue of the Farallon island nuclear dump
site was common knowledge to many in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-to-late 1970s; I can personally recall reading of the issue in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. My personal take (as a callow teenager) was that the incident was sensational and it had a certain coolness factor to it. Little did I know (as a 13 year old) of the implications to the food chain nor of the larger perspective to how science can serve the public interest. But, where and how didn’t the public as a whole or the “govt” protect us more fully from ourselves? It may take a village to raise a child—but who teaches the village to think—other than the previous villagers? The inane nuances of the problem points to an “almost catastrophic breakdown in the normal functioning of society.”

I am not faulting the generation that believed in “Atoms for Peace,” but this news item came about during the height of 1970s environmental movement—a full twenty years after President Eisenhower’s ground breaking proposal.

The above work was what I had been laboring on—before realizing that I personally did not have the answer. . . .

One may ask in what way do the above paragraphs pertain to the astrobiological nature of life—it is just one view of possibly “billions and billions” of which I need to fully understand. It reminds me of the riddle of the raven—how do you know that all ravens are black? You assume that all will be black—and to prove otherwise may(?) take multiple lifetimes.

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