Friday, December 3, 2010

Mono Lake - not of this world

A tufa tower rock formation in Mono Lake, 2006.Image via WikipediaA few years ago, I managed to visit Mono Lake and I made a pledge to myself that I would get my kids over to it one day.

Last summer, that dream came true. On a trip from Long Beach to San Francisco, through Yosemite, from Mono Lake to Las Vegas (where my boy turned 13) via Death Valley, over to the Grand Canyon, and back to Long Beach via Joshua Tree National Park, I told the kids that they would see at least three places that simply do not seem to be on the earth. One of them is Mono Lake (the other two are Joshua Tree NP and Yosemite, but actually Death Valley should be included; I simply had not been there before).

I told the kids to be on the lookout for places where Capt. Kirk could beam down with Spock, and no changes to the scenery would be necessary for us to believe they landed on a different planet.

Now, there is news that scientists have discovered a bacterium in Mono Lake that basically constitutes a new form of life. As one NASA scientist stated on television, we can go looking for ET now.

It should be kept in mind that Mono Lake was almost depleted to provide water to the city of Los Angeles, but environmentalists stepped in, and the lake is now gradually being refilled.

Imagine the loss had Mono Lake been drained. As of this writing, Wikipedia still contains the following sentence under "phosphorus": "Phosphorus is a key element in all known forms of life." As of today, that is no longer true. All forms of life use of phosphorus, and arsenic has a similar structure but is toxic to every living organism – except the one now discovered.

Phosphorus is used in farming (it is a main ingredient in fertilizer), and supplies of it are limited. Countries like Morocco are main exporters of the material. There is even a theory of "peak phosphorus"– the point where it will not be possible for the earth to have any additional living organisms for a lack of phosphorous (see this). The theory of peak phosphorus is quite mainstream now; see this article from April and Foreign Policy, which points out:

Nearly 90 percent of the world's estimated phosphorus reserves are found in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. In comparison, the 12 countries that make up the OPEC cartel control only 75 percent of the world's oil reserves.

The discovery of this new bacterium will not allow us to switch to arsenic when we are out of phosphorus, however. But it it is the kind of thing Spock and McCoy would have been fascinated to find, and which TV viewers would have thought too fanciful.

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