Monday, September 20, 2010

migrating snow geese, a toxic lake and amazingness.

yesterday as I rode home from a family photography session I listened to NPR.

I have enjoyed NPR since I was in college--or parts of it, at least. I never really cared for the news (in audio or visual or print format, for the record) but I'd listen to it on the way to my internship at the Port of Catoosa. I'd listen to whatever was on, when I rocked my tyvek suit and respirator in the shaker room, where I would use this 35 pound series of concentric metal circles inside a big metal container for hours on end (and sweat off about 10 lb in the process) in order to pulverize the catalyst into uniformly super-small pieces.

On Fridays I was particularly grateful for NPR because I listened to Science Friday while I rocked the tyvek awesomeness. (ps, want a visual? I looked a little like this--picture found on google, couldn't find a way to reference it other than it's from a picasa album)

so, anyway, I was listening to the show that was on, radiolab. I caught the last ten minutes. I listened and enjoyed the view--the sun was setting, and it was beautiful. And as the program ended, I just kept thinking "wow. wow. WOW."

I called two friends that I thought would enjoy the story. And I called my granny because I knew she'd love it too. And now I'll share the abridged version with you. You can hear the full story here.

The gist is that there was this mine, and after the mined it they let it fill with water. And that water made a toxic lake, full of copper and other heavy metals from, you guessed it, the mine. It's an eyesore, sure, but it's also a serious hazard.

One winter some migrating snow geese landed on that toxic lake. Three hundred and forty-two of them. They know how many because they counted their carcasses. The geese were found dead the next morning, with lesions in their throat and insides. It was like the lake water was eating them from the inside. Gross and tragic.

Fast forward a few decades...and a scientist brings two other scientists a sample of this green slimy stuff on a stick that he saw growing about a foot under the surface of the lake. They go to check it out, and this green stuff is ALIVE. and growing! Alive and growing in the toxic lake!

they go check out the water there and find this black gunk that is also thriving in the lake. and it's like a little metal vacuum of a microorganism. it absorbs 85-95% of the metal, which is HUGE. (most are 15%-ish)

so they look into the origin of this black gunk that is cleaning up this toxic pit--the toxic pit whose water will eventually pollute all of the surrounding water sources once it reaches groundwater levels (sidenote, I guess I did learn something in that class I took last fall. although I'm envisioning groundwater scenarios in excel form with highlighted cells. weird. anyway.) except this black goo, could clean it up!

but the coolest part, to me, is that they searched for where this black goo came from, and it has only been found in one other place, ever. in the rectal swabs of geese.

yes, in geese.

geese like the ones who landed in the lake.

maybe this seems like an "oh, cool." moment to you. but to me it's much, much bigger. maybe I'm a sap, maybe it's my scientific inclinations, maybe I just like to make mountains out of molehills (okay, sometimes that happens. this isn't it.). I mean, geese land on bodies of water all the time, this isn't new.

but really? I guess it's just amazing to me that geese with that particular microorganism landed in that body of water. And that the only creature that could serve as a carrier for that microorganism happens to be the kind of creature that hangs out in lakes when they need shelter. It wasn't in a squirrel or a robin. It was geese. And it amazes me too that that particular microorganism can not only clean up that water, but that research suggests it might actually help us fight cancer. Which is particularly interesting, because if it hadn't been carried by geese, and it hadn't been exposed to this intensely toxic environment, the microorganism might not have evolved into its cancer-fighting form.

My granny also pointed out that, to her, one of the biggest "wow" factors of all was that we now know enough about science to actually understand all of this. That these kind of things have been happening on our planet and we haven't been aware at all--but now we have evolved and we understand.

To me, this falls squarely under a phrase I don't generally like--to me "it's a God thing." But this time I think it's really, really is.

I will definitely be checking in on the findings from this toxic lake in Montana. I'll keep you posted.


gurdas said...

This post is - INSPIRING. And I need to hear it in every minute detail. In person.

Barbara Portwood said...

Please keep us updated. This is wonderful.

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