Pollution: Invisible and Obvious

Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends,
have become global garbage cans.
–Jacques-Yves Cousteau


On a walk through a local park, a young woman passes beneath a dense green canopy of trees.  Birds sing around her, wildflowers bloom along the trail, and a doe and fawn whitetail deer pass nearby with little caution.  This scene is timeless and anyone could enjoy these simple wonders of nature.  But between the daisies on the ground and the highest pine needles in the canopy are traces of human impact.  Coke cans discarded carelessly among the flowers, cigarette butts in the nests of birds, and plastic bags flapping with the breeze on twigs of the trees.  Other traces are less obvious: the droning and rumbling of motors from a nearby highway and industrial factory; a hazy grey night sky without many stars extending twenty miles or more from the city; and the stream of water that seems green and murky.   It is pollution and in many ways and various forms it fouls the various mechanics of nature and impairs the ecosystem.

Abandoned equipment on unused farmland.

Discarded waste is unsightly and it persists for great lengths of time without breaking down much or even at all.  Large pieces of junk left to rot take up an immense space in comparison to the smaller beings of the forest floor.  They block out the sun and rain and are a poor substrate for life unless decades of leaf litter form soil around them.  And if they do break down, however slow or fast, they leech chemicals into the soil that are or can become toxic.  Toxicity renders soil unlivable for any number of living things and an area can become a wasteland.  Rains wash these toxins deeper into the soil and eventually some out to the stream.

The water might be polluted by visible waste–water bottles and rusty oil drums, chunks of drifting foam and trash bags–but it also polluted by the same toxins from soil and runoff from roads and over-fertilized lawns.  The water can be very clear, but the danger is still present and sometimes only a chemical test of the water reveals harmful toxins.  Water with an unnaturally greenish color harbors algae supported by lawn fertilizer.  These algae blooms suffocate the water and diminish its potential for biodiversity.  All streams and rivers eventually lead to the ocean which then becomes subject to the same poisoning from pesticide use and other toxins from inland sources.

The air is also subject to toxicity.  A slight breeze can carry vapors and gases far away.  Drifting vapors and gases might directly affect local life–poisoning the leaves of a plant or harming a young deer fawn that inhales them.  The build up of gases and vapors in the air could potentially cause serious harm to whatever breathes them in.  Other gases are less potent at first and instead mix with water vapor and condense in clouds.  The clouds carry the poisonous vapor assault many miles and then dump toxic rain over a massive area.  The rain burns and acidifies everything–life, land, and water.

The air carries more than vapor and gas.  Sound streams through the air constantly and is captured only by whatever it can vibrate.  The sound of bird song, fresh summer rain, bullfrog croaking at night, or an owl hooting one last time before sunrise can all be caught by our ears.  Sound is also everywhere man is–in a  footstep on a sidewalk, rubber tires cruising on pavement, bumping bass and yodeling treble through speakers.  Noise moves through air buffered only partly by physical obstructions and great distances so that true silence is impossible to find.

Light isn’t hard to find, at day or night.  Ever since the discovery of man-made fire, light has been only increasingly easier and cheaper to make.  Yet, the fear of dark is even more ancient than man-made light.  The darkness conceals potential dangers such as predators that hunt at night.  The darkness also lets us see the light–the light of stars.  More darkness lets more tiny stars shine.  In places with almost pristine nighttime darkness–and without much air pollution–starry nights are truly spectacular.  Some life also thrives in the true darkness of night as much as we thrive in the sun of summer days.

A pair of Mallard Ducks in a stream that runs through a local park and is partly fed by runoff from a nearby road.
A pair of Mallard Ducks in a stream that runs through a local park and is partly fed by runoff from a nearby road.

Pollution extends beyond the land and water and air, and even beyond light and sound.  Thermal pollution heats air or water or land and causes some organisms to die and others to thrive without limit–tipping the balance of nature for every creature from microorganisms to whales.  Radioactive pollution contaminates areas for generations into the future.  Visual pollution–a subjective take on mankind’s creations such as highway billboards–damages the natural beauty of a scene.

In all of its various forms, pollution is the waste and excess that man creates.  The incredible amount of waste that man inconsiderately spills into the air, land, and water poses threats to every living thing on the planet.  In areas higher in population, pollution almost seems commonplace and less of an offense against the environment.  For the young woman walking through a local park, litter among the wildflowers or drifting in a pond might not seem bad.  However, pollution everywhere and anywhere is toxic and dangerous, and the responsibility belongs to all of us.  The last, and possibly the worst, thing that we can pollute is our perception of nature.

The lonely moon during a lunar eclipse. Taken in the suburbs only a few miles south of Pittsburgh, PA.


Author: astanyoung

I'm a natural history educator and outdoor enthusiast. I want to help people understand and enjoy the natural world that we live in.

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