Toxic Ocean (Remember the Dodo Book 2)


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Poisoning by books? Our recent research indicates so. The books come from the 16th and 17 th centuries. The poisonous qualities of these books were detected by conducting a series of X-ray fluorescence analyses micro-XRF. Micro-XRF technology is widely used within the fields of archaeology and art, when investigating the chemical elements of pottery and paintings, for example. The reason why we took these three rare books to the X-ray lab was because the library had previously discovered that medieval manuscript fragments, such as copies of Roman law and canonical law, were used to make their covers.

It is well documented that European bookbinders in the 16 th and 17 th centuries used to recycle older parchments. We tried to identify the Latin texts used, or at least read some of their content. But then we found that the Latin texts in the covers of the three volumes were hard to read because of an extensive layer of green paint which obscures the old handwritten letters. So we took them to the lab. But XRF-analysis revealed that the green pigment layer was arsenic.

This chemical element is among the most toxic substances in the world and exposure may lead to various symptoms of poisoning, the development of cancer and even death. Arsenic As is a ubiquitous naturally occurring metalloid. In nature, arsenic is typically combined with other elements such as carbon and hydrogen.


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This is known as organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic, which may occur in a pure metallic form as well as in compounds, is the more harmful variant. The toxicity of arsenic does not diminish with time. Depending on the type and duration of exposure, various symptoms of arsenic poisoning include an irritated stomach, irritated intestines, nausea, diarrhoea, skin changes and irritation of the lungs.

The arsenic pigment — a crystalline powder — is easy to manufacture and has been commonly used for multiple purposes, especially in the 19 th century. The size of the powder grains influence on the colour toning, as seen in oil paints and lacquers. Larger grains produce a distinct darker green — smaller grains a lighter green. The pigment is especially known for its colour intensity and resistance to fading.

Industrial production of Paris green was initiated in Europe in the early 19 th century.

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Impressionist and post-impressionist painters used different versions of the pigment to create their vivid masterpieces. This means that many museum pieces today contain the poison. In its heyday, all types of materials, even book covers and clothes, could be coated in Paris green for aesthetic reasons. Of course, continuous skin contact with the substance would lead to symptoms of exposure.

First, Myers and Lovejoy helped galvanize public concern over the seemingly abstract matter of how many species may be lost as humanity claims an ever larger share of Earth's landscape and resources. Second, the Myers and Lovejoy warnings became targets for a handful of critics, who used the inexactitude of those numbers to cast doubt on the reality of the whole problem. Most conspicuous among the naysayers was Julian Simon, an economist at the University of Maryland, who argued bullishly that human population growth and human resourcefulness would solve all problems worth solving, of which a decline in diversity of tropical insects wasn't one.

In a issue of New Scientist , Simon rebutted Norman Myers, based on his own construal of select data, to the effect that there was "no obvious recent downward trend in world forests-no obvious 'losses' at all, and certainly no 'near catastrophic' loss. Of inferential evidence there was an abundance-for example, from the Centinela Ridge in a cloud-forest zone of western Ecuador, where in the botanist Alwyn Gentry and a colleague found 38 species of narrowly endemic plants, including several with mysterious black leaves. Before Gentry could get back, Centinela Ridge had been completely deforested, the native plants replaced by cacao and other crops.

As for inferential evidence generally, we might do well to remember what it contributes to our conviction that approximately , Japanese civilians died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The city's population fell abruptly on August 6, , but there was no one-by-one identification of , bodies. Nowadays a few younger writers have taken Simon's line, pooh-poohing the concern over extinction.

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As for Simon himself, who died in , perhaps the truest sentence he left behind was, "We must also try to get more reliable information about the number of species that might be lost with various changes in the forests. Field biologists tend to avoid investing their precious research time in doomed tracts of forest.

Despite these obstacles, recent efforts to quantify rates of extinction have supplanted the old warnings. These new estimates use satellite imaging and improved on-the-ground data about deforestation, records of the many human-caused extinctions on islands, and a branch of ecological theory called island biogeography, which connects documented island cases with the mainland problem of forest fragmentation. These efforts differ in particulars, reflecting how much uncertainty is still involved, but their varied tones form a chorus of consensus.

I'll mention three of the most credible. Reid, of the World Resources Institute, in gathered numbers on the average annual deforestation in each of 63 tropical countries during the s, and from them he charted three different scenarios low, middle, high of presumable forest loss by the year He chose a standard mathematical model of the relationship between decreasing habitat area and decreasing species diversity, made conservative assumptions about the crucial constant, and ran his various deforestation estimates through the model. Reid's calculations suggest that by the year , between 17 and 35 percent of tropical forest species will be extinct or doomed to extinction.

Either at the high or the low end of this range, it would amount to a bad loss, though not as bad as the K-T event.

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Then again, won't mark the end of human pressures on biological diversity or landscape. Robert M. May, an ecologist at Oxford, co-authored a similar effort in May and his colleagues noted the five causal factors that account for most extinctions: habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, overkill, invasive species, and secondary effects cascading through an ecosystem from other extinctions. Each of those five is more intricate than it sounds.

For instance, habitat fragmentation dooms species by consigning them to small parcels of habitat left insularized in an ocean of human impact, and by then subjecting them to the same jeopardies small population size, acted upon by environmental fluctuation, catastrophe, inbreeding, bad luck, and cascading effects that make island species especially vulnerable to extinction.

May's team concluded that most extant bird and mammal species can expect average life spans of between and years.


  • How we discovered three poisonous books in our university library;
  • A visit to Rome using centuries-old guidebooks.
  • How we discovered three poisonous books in our university library;
  • That's equivalent to saying that about a third of one percent will go extinct each year until some unimaginable end point is reached. The most recent estimate comes from Stuart L. Pimm and Thomas M. Brooks, ecologists at the University of Tennessee. Using a combination of published data on bird species lost from forest fragments and field data they gathered themselves, Pimm and Brooks concluded that 50 percent of the world's forest bird species will be doomed to extinction by deforestation occurring over the next half century.

    And birds won't be the sole victims.

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    Jablonski, who started down this line of thought in , offers me a reminder about the conceptual machinery behind such estimates. They are approximations. And the question is: Are they usefully wrong, or are they meaninglessly wrong? In other words, that this is a drastic experiment in biological drawdown we're engaged in, not a continuation of routine. Behind the projections of species loss lurk a number of critical but hard-to-plot variables, among which two are especially weighty: continuing landscape conversion and the growth curve of human population.

    Landscape conversion can mean many things: draining wetlands to build roads and airports, turning tallgrass prairies under the plow, fencing savanna and overgrazing it with domestic stock, cutting second-growth forest in Vermont and consigning the land to ski resorts or vacation suburbs, slash-and-burn clearing of Madagascar's rainforest to grow rice on wet hillsides, industrial logging in Borneo to meet Japanese plywood demands. The ecologist John Terborgh and a colleague, Carel P.

    Madagascar, again, would be a good place to see all four stages, especially the terminal one. Along a thin road that leads inland from a town called Mahajanga, on the west coast, you can gaze out over a vista of degraded land-chalky red hills and gullies, bare of forest, burned too often by graziers wanting a short-term burst of pasturage, sparsely covered in dry grass and scrubby fan palms, eroded starkly, draining red mud into the Betsiboka River, supporting almost no human presence.

    Another showcase of degraded land-attributable to fuelwood gathering, overgrazing, population density, and decades of apartheid-is the Ciskei homeland in South Africa. Or you might look at over-irrigated crop fields left ruinously salinized in the Central Valley of California. You can see it in the central Amazon, where big tracts of rainforest have been felled and burned, in a largely futile attempt encouraged by misguided government incentives, now revoked to pasture cattle on sun-hardened clay.

    According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the rate of deforestation in tropical countries has increased contrary to Julian Simon's claim since the s, when Norman Myers made his estimates. During the s, as the FAO reported in , that rate reached South America was losing 6. Southeast Asia was losing less in sheer area but more proportionally: 1.

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    In terms of cumulative loss, as reported by other observers, the Atlantic coast forest of Brazil is at least 95 percent gone. The Philippines, once nearly covered with rainforest, has lost 92 percent. Costa Rica has continued to lose forest, despite that country's famous concern for its biological resources. The richest old-growth lowland forests in West Africa, India, the Greater Antilles, Madagascar, and elsewhere have been reduced to less than a tenth of their original areas. By the middle of the twenty-first century, if those trends continue, tropical forest will exist virtually nowhere outside of protected areas-that is, national parks, wildlife refuges, and other official reserves.

    How many protected areas will there be? The present worldwide total is about 9,, encompassing 6. Will those parks and reserves retain their full biological diversity? Species with large territorial needs will be unable to maintain viable population levels within small reserves, and as those species die away their absence will affect others. The disappearance of big predators, for instance, can release limits on medium-sized predators and scavengers, whose overabundance can drive still other species such as ground-nesting birds to extinction.

    This has already happened in some habitat fragments, such as Panama's Barro Colorado Island, and been well documented in the literature of island biogeography. The lesson of fragmented habitats is Yeatsian: Things fall apart. Human population growth will make a bad situation worse by putting ever more pressure on all available land. Population growth rates have declined in many countries within the past several decades, it's true. But world population is still increasing, and even if average fertility suddenly, magically dropped to 2.

    The annual increase is now 80 million people, with most of that increment coming in less-developed countries.

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