“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
With that opening line to his visionary sci-fi thriller of 1898, Wells set the world on its ear. Big, bad human beings. Kings and queens of all we survey. Not 100 words into the novel, and we’re the ones being surveyed. By greater intelligences. Like “transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” And what is the Earth, as seen from Mars, but a drop of water. He made us feel so very small, and it terrified us!
Yet, should we also be frightened as the ones looking into the drops?
Some scientists say maybe. Marine microbial ecologists and related researchers are studying the effects of petroleum-eating bacteria on the biota of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. During the cleanup, BP introduced a toxic detergent called Corexit, but a variety of microbes that consume different chemical compounds in crude oil occur naturally and assisted efforts to mitigate the largest petroleum spill in history.
In particular, the researchers—which include marine archaeologists—want to find out what the effects of the cleanup efforts have been on shipwrecks that serve as important artificial reefs in the gulf. They have already observed that some combination of the toxins in the detergent, the microbes, and the petroleum itself has apparently caused one specific bacterium to dominate all the rest.
As scientists, we look for biodiversity as a measure of the health of any ecological zone. So, it is troubling that one microbe might be dominating a previously bacteria-diverse biota.
The research project is also examining the “health” of the wrecks themselves, because they support great biodiversity and, numbering at least 2,000, the sunken ships and submarines are an asset to the Gulf of Mexico’s health meriting conservation.
I suppose we can all sleep a little better knowing that a cadre of scientists is out there in the gulf, making sure a horrific surprise isn’t sprung on us. It’s good to know they’re looking into trillions of drops of water and determining what’s going on with the “transient creatures that swarm and multiply” within. Wells urged us to remember that, quickly, things that seemed exceedingly small can become immense. And vice versa.
My upcoming novel, ULTIMATE ERROR, is about an oil spill cleanup gone horribly awry. Most of us thought about the terrible damage done by the petroleum itself after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. But, did we ever think that the cleanup efforts could actually cause an even more widespread disaster?