Bumps, Pockmarks, Scars, and Slicks on a Forlorn Planet


This article was inspired by colleague David Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC and dedicated to protecting and restoring our oceans through hands-on conservation.

Bruce Rinker
Bruce Rinker

Dr. Guggenheim posted an article, “The Worst Thing I Ever Saw Underwater,” on his website on 21 May 2013. It detailed something ghastly he had witnessed from a submersible on the bottom of Pribolof Canyon in Alaska’s Bering Sea back in August 2007: a massive trawl scar as wide as a Boeing 737 wingspan that extended for miles in either direction, having destroyed ancient deepwater corals and ripped through the world’s second largest underwater canyon. Some time before, a factory fishing trawler had swept through the area, recklessly scooping up a delicate regional ecosystem before tossing most of it aside as worthless “by-catch.”

Alaskan tribal groups, thousands of activists, and local companies have protested such threats from industrial fishing fleets for years now. Since a billion dollars of seafood is harvested along the Bering Sea shelf each year, however, the ensuing immensity of profits has overwhelmed and squelched their complaints thus far.

After reading Dr. Guggenheim’s posting, I wondered: What other human-caused bumps, pockmarks, scars, and slicks might we find on Earth? Blots connected to profits from our crushing animal appetite for the planet’s natural resources?

Here’s a partial but still sobering list of candidates for our consideration: Kalgoorlie Gold Mine in western Australia (3.5 km long, 1.5 km wide, and 360 m deep); the “Big Hole” de Beer Diamond Pit in South Africa (463 m wide, 240 m deep); Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories (10 square km); Ekati Diamond Mine in Canada (0.44 square km and 580 m deep); Grasberg Gold Mine in the mountains of Papua New Guinea (900 m deep); Chuquicamata Copper Mine in Chile (4.3 km long, 3 km wide, 850 m deep); Escondida Copper Mine in Chile (400 m deep); Udachnaya Diamond Mine in Russia (600 m deep); Mirny Diamond Mine in Russia (1.2 km wide, 525 m deep); and Bingham Canyon Copper and Gold Mine in Utah (4 km wide, 1200 m deep), called the world’s “carbuncle supremo.” For comparison, the Empire State Building is about 443 m tall.

And let’s not forget a handful of recent audacious ventures that have dotted Earth’s surface: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry – 4.9 million barrels – with its subsequent impacts on marine life, coastal ecosystems, and local economies); Dubai’s artificial archipelagoes in the Persian Gulf (a pretentious engineering feat with its losses of corals and sea turtles); the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a plastic soup twice the area of Texas located between Hawaii and California (with its impacts on fish, turtles, and birds); the tar sands oil extraction in northern Alberta, Canada (with its losses of taiga, wildlife, and tribal lands); and the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China (with its losses of forests, wildlife, and more than 1,300 archaeological sites).

Allow me to say something again about the Alberta Tar Sands project, especially given the relentless hyperbole by many Congressional Republicans, provincial government officials in Canada, and TransCanada oil lobbyists. I’ve written about this previously: see http://theroano.wwwmi3-ss14.a2hosted.com/2012/01/12/a-river-of-disgrace-runs-through-it. If approved, the associated pipeline, known as the Keystone XL Pipeline, will trek close to 2,000 miles from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, carrying 900,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil per day into the United States.

Despite all the associated backroom politicking, the “Friends of the Earth” has labeled this project “an environmental crime in progress.” From its points of origin to delivery, the pipeline is fraught with short-term conveniences, mid-term exaggerations, and long-term tragedies. It has already destroyed wide expanses of sensitive taiga forest (called “overburden” in the parlance of industry), has eclipsed the spiritual values of tribal lands, and has offered vacuous promises of jobs, safety, and energy security that simply are not true.

If there’s any industrial project on the horizon that is the antithesis of sound science, enduring conservation, and wise stewardship, the Keystone XL Pipeline is a blue-ribbon winner. The tar sands represent one of the dirtiest fuels on Earth – and one of the dirtiest political tricks ever contrived by a greedy, obscene coupling of industry and government. Yet it’s just one of a number of human-contrived bumps, pockmarks, scars, and slicks on our planetary home base that violate a basic principle of ecology: don’t foul your own nest.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out this National Geographic Society article published in March 2009: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text. Furthermore, the internet is filled with nauseating images of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. With a couple of clicks of your computer mouse, you, too, can see how this project has scarred Canada’s wilderness. Those wounds in the land will never heal.

From scarring deep sea canyons to scouring away biodiversity in remote wild areas, our species has exerted a gratuitous pressure on Earth’s living treasures that far exceeds our place in the economy of nature. Rather than advancing the telltale signs of plague – bumps, pockmarks, scars, and oozy slicks – how about resolving to heal our world of 30 million interwoven species now under siege? Highlighting our forlorn planet, our only home, instead as a treasure house of irreplaceable and wondrous variety?

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer

[email protected]