At the end of the summer I spent a couple of days in East Hampton, New York, on the Long Island Sound. We were incredibly lucky. It was the beginning of September–still “summer” in terms of beach houses because Labor Day was late–and a big storm was coming, but on the days I was able to be there it was blazingly hot and our beach routine was the same as it would have been in mid-July. The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the surf, which is always a matter of great importance to my companion. But the surfers of Long Island are a hardy and adaptable group and they would have managed to catch some of those last summer waves except for a strange phenomenon. On the beach there were crystalline crescents where the tide had left its mark, and its debris. The crystalline glitter, under that still blue September sky, consisted of thousands of tiny clear egg-shaped forms. And of course the tide itself was filled with them, so the surfers felt like they were swimming through soup, or tapioca.
Transparent marine creatures make people nervous: jellyfish come and go, and some of them are dangerous. When I went online to read about jellyfish I found a news item about 150 people being stung by a big one stranded on a beach (it sounded as though they went and touched it–not a brilliant move). At East Hampton, people kept asking each other what the clear pieces were. “Broken up jellyfish,” was the consensus, and though no one had been stung in the water we were all, I think, apprehensive.
I came up with nothing that made sense, shut down my browser, and then felt a surge of determination. I rebooted and went back to work, and though I found not a single mention of the creatures on the beach then and there, I eventually tracked my way through all kinds of random entries and pseudo-science pages to find the word I needed: salp.
I felt delightfully nerdy the next day as I explained that these little creatures were called salps, a harmless organism that usually lived in deeper parts of the ocean and in the southern hemisphere, and that they were apparently good at carbon sequestration so a help with climate change. No one else knew any of this, which was a relief. I was nervous about getting the terminology wrong and you never know whom you’re talking to on the beach: a surfer might be local but could also be a marine biologist, a Harvard med student, or the CEO of a biotech company.
By then I felt quite comfortable picking up and examine the crystalline tunicates, which I had learned move around the deep ocean in long aggregate chains. According to some of the research I came across, reported in an article in USA Today, they are capable of taking in excess carbon, then sinking to the depths of the ocean with it. This is carbon sequestration, though usually one hears the word used to describe human techniques and technologies for dealing with excess carbon in the atmosphere. Trees also sequester carbon, and so do coal and oil–when they are left in the ground.
Salps have become an oceanic mascot here and we are using a salp spiral chain on the cover of The Law and Politics of Sustainability, Volume 3 of the Encyclopedia of Sustainability, which will be published at the end of this month, December 2010. Here’s the photo we used. The salp spiral has also become the logo for the first Berkshire Journal: The International Review of Sustainability in Business and Law.
15 February 2011:
Nice to be reminded of those hot summer days after these weeks of frigid weather and endless snow! Kelly Sutherland, one of the scientists mentioned in the article in USA Today, sent me these additional links:
In a surprising new finding, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that the salps’ nets are remarkably engineered to catch extremely small particles that scientists assumed would easily slip through the 1.5-micron holes in the nets. (A micron is a millionth of a meter, or 10-6m.) Their discovery revealed a previously unsuspected biological mechanism that helps operate the marine food web and also removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the upper ocean.