Sharks, Wildfires, and Humanity’s Terrifying Effect on the World

Greenland sharks are the longest living vertebrates known in the world.

Two things were in the news recently: sharks (thankfully, the sudden frenzy of interest has nothing to do with them attacking humans) and wildfires. While the stories are intended to be unrelated, I couldn’t help but bridge the divide.

New research has emerged on the little-known yet mysteriously long-lived Greenland shark. The fish, which can be found in the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, is estimated to have an average lifespan of a prodigious 392 years. This is apparently a commonly cited fact among those who research longevity, but a new Cambridge University study calls into question some of the carbon-dating techniques used to estimate biological age.

To determine the age of the animal, scientists collected several dead Greenland sharks, and examined the carbon levels in the eye tissue of the fish. The veracity of their methodology is not entirely interesting to me, but what I find compelling is that tissue samples from three sharks showed evidence of the “bomb pulse” — a spike in carbon levels attributed to numerous nuclear bomb tests after World War II. Put another way, nuclear tests that took place thousands of miles from the Greenland sharks’ habitat nevertheless produced an indelible physiological tattoo on the animals.

Humans carry these molecular markings as well. Kirsty Spalding, a professor at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, says “A geopolitical phenomenon — this Cold War bomb testing — has, in a way, put a date stamp on everything and everybody.” While the bomb pulse effect has allowed impressive scientific research to take place, it also signifies the awesome and frightening capacity that human beings have to alter our blue planet.

This brings me to the next new story that caught my attention: wildfires.

The all-consuming wildfires on the West Coast have destroyed over five million acres of land and property in California, Oregon, and Washington. They continue to burn. A forbidding shroud of smoke remains suspended over cities in the Pacific Northwest and has recently spread across the country. In Washington, DC, where I live, smog blotted out the sun.

At a press conference yesterday, Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary, beseeched President Trump to value the scientific consensus on climate change.

The president retorted, “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot responded.

“I don’t think science knows, actually,” President Trump said.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, the incongruous relationship between our hyper-connected world and the president’s hyper-isolated mind is a ticking time bomb. It is manifestly apparent that the entirety of human output has an unprecedented effect on the world, and everything in it. Of course, there is room for disagreement and rigorous debate on matters such as forest management. If one thing is certain, it’s that many factors come into play when discussing climate change. But, to dismiss scientific facts altogether, especially at a time when two-thirds of US adults say the federal government is doing too little to prevent climate change, is political malpractice.

We cannot continue living in a civilization where human beings possess godlike technology — capable of altering the chemical structure of all life at the touch of a button — while our president repudiates basic scientific facts. If only the very fibers of President Trump’s septuagenarian body — permanently marked by blasts from atomic testing — could cry out in support of science.

Living and working in Washington, DC

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