Monday, 5 December 2016

Specialist #5: My Growth Stimulants P & N Are Causing Me Problems (Biogeochemical Flows)

Bluey here,

I haven't spoken about specialists besides Dr Barnosky for weeks! So when I found out that Dr Barnosky was figuratively history—having had him for my last two appointments—I was happy. When I discovered I didn't just have one, but two new specialists, I was ecstatic. Dr Brush & Dr Carpenter Bennett came highly regarded, as did their eccentric nurse, Nurse Withers et al.

My predilection for the 'growth hormones' Phosphorous & Nitrogen have become particular issues of late, having caused multiple unforeseen complications. Whilst I continue to overuse them excessively, the doctors were not judgmental—they even seemed to understand the addiction!

Hypoxia in the Chesapeake Bay (Source: Integration & Application Network)

The tests for Phosphorus proceeded first. Dr Carpenter sought to develop a more comprehensive exploration of my Phosphorous levels than those of my former GP Dr Rockstrom et al—but inline with my current GP Steffen et al—citing the need to examine both my global and local flows of Phosphorous. Dr Rockstrom had previously concentrated only on Phosphorous flows to my ocean which had fallen well below his proposed PB. I thought Dr Rockstrom's failure to acknowledge the local effects of my Phosphorous intake, particularly my 'eutrophication' at the freshwater level, was plain irresponsible. But it was reassuring to know that I now had expert specialists committed to thorough and broad examination.

On completion, Dr Carpenter handed his instruments to Dr Brush to carry out my Nitrogen tests. Before concentrating on a single body part called 'Chesapeake Bay' near my ribs, Dr Brush explained how an overdose of Nitrogen in coastal areas can cause a "proliferation of planktonic algal growth", just as with Phosphorous. Using the Chesapeake Bay system as her prime example, many coastal areas had "flipped from a benthic dominated system to a phytoplankton based pelagic system". As a result, the mass of decomposing planktonic algae were consuming a significant proportion of my O2, thus depleting what would otherwise be available other low-lying marine organisms to enable them to flourish. My full results:

Medical Report 5: Biogeochemical flows

Tg P = Teragrams or million tonnes of phosphorus.

Humans had their fingerprints all over this again; I knew it. I'd recently read Vaclav Smil's 'Detonator of the Population Explosion' about the Haber process and also his piece about "human interference in the nitrogen cycle being incomparably more massive than the perturbance of the carbon cycle" but having the results in front of me confirmed it all. Before considering the stark implications though, let's break down the drivers of eutrophication and hypoxia—words that were foreign to me until today.

This interactive map of my eutrophication and hypoxia zones, displayed to me by Nurse Withers, brings their full extent to life. According to the World Resource Institute, eutrophication is driven by indirect and direct drivers of which intensive fertiliser application and land use change are its primary culprits, along with the usual suspects of human population growth and economic growth. Climate change and over-fishing, unsurprisingly, also "exacerbate" eutrophication.

Interestingly, eutrophication and hypoxia are not the same—as I'd first thought. Eutrophication actually causes hypoxia or 'Dead Zones' to form. Human scientists explain Hypoxia here:

Should I be as worried as my Medical Report indicates? Dr Brush and Dr Carpenter believe recovery is possible, though didn't convince me fully of their arguments. According to Dr Carpenter, the recycling of Phosphorous and potential zoning techniques could solve dual problems: that of running out of Phosphorous and also reducing runoff into freshwater systems. Equally sanguine, Dr Brush cites denitrification of the watershed as something that "seems possible" if a system were designed to "mimic" past conditions, especially if remote sensing were optimised to identify good locations. All this—of course—assumes a change from the human status quo though.

Enter Nurse Withers and 'green chemistry'. The nurse was a revelation: design new food systems, refine livestock feeds, use biorefinery, promote circular economies, sustainably mine Phosphorous Rock (PR), reduce waste, and recycle! In his opinion, Phosphorous was too critical an element to leave to its own devices. It has no substitute so humans must "maximise the economic value of PR", recover it from secondary resources and "provide P governance" in the food chain. When? As a matter of urgency.

The specialists were stunned.

Yours for awhile,

PS: I overheard the specialists discussing human PR mining effects on my Nauru. What a tragedy.


  1. Hi John,

    This is very cool approach to diagnose current problems! Out of curiosity, how did you come up with this idea?

  2. Hi Adele,

    Thanks for the feedback. I think it's important to get the narrative right when it comes to earth science so I just tried to think of how I could make it metaphorically engaging. The Doctor-patient dynamic is one we're all familiar with so I just ran with it. It can also probably be attributed to the fact that I'm a generalist so developing a broad understanding of global environmental change was always going to be a factor in deciding what approach to take. Bluey and I are just trying to bring it right back down to earth!