The Lungs of the Earth

by Cheyenne J.

Every second, seven billion people inhale. Exhale. Wish on a dandelion. Blow on hot soup. Yawn. Stride panting over a finish line. Sigh. Speak. Meditate. Belt out a high note. Scuba dive. Every second, seven billion people are alive because of a single element: oxygen.

On a recent volunteer trip with the Ocean Inquiry Project, I stood on the bow of a boat looking at water. It was dark and deep and seemed empty-though it was vast and I knew otherwise-I didn’t see fish under the reflection of the sky, I searched for kelp and was disappointed, and I suppressed the anxious optimism of spotting a whale or seal. Inhale. Exhale. I helped pull a net up from the waves of the Sound and watched the clear water filter out and leave a concentrated brown solution in the bottom. The project staff on board poured the sample into a mason jar, setting it before us as we settled in with some microscopes.

I watched the water come alive. It was as if these microorganisms made up the liquid itself and there was movement and vitality in every drop we analyzed on our slides. “A lot of people assume that the Amazon is the lungs of the planet, but I would argue the ocean,” our station mentor told us. “That’s because they think it’s big. And it’s something they can see. They see huge trees and plants everywhere and think that they must be just cranking out more oxygen than anything else, but they’re forgetting that we are a water planet. The ocean makes up over 70% of the Earth. You are looking at the lifeline of the world right now through those microscopes: phytoplankton.” I focused the lens on single cell chains and spears and cucumber round organisms. They were aliens. I looked back at the jar of water. I looked out the window to the open sea….how I thought it was empty. “Sure there are areas in the ocean that are more productive than others, just like on land. You wouldn’t expect much oxygen to be coming out of Antarctica or the Sahara, and there are similar places in the water. But cold, nutrient rich upwellings create frenzies of these plankton right here in Puget Sound. Our waters are home to dynamic, carbon absorbing, oxygen releasing communities which are just as, if not more, significant to the health of the planet as the Amazon Rain Forest in terms of oxygen production.”

Inhale. Exhale. Understanding the interconnectivity of our world and its systems is a key to finding your place within them. In a society dominated by access to mass amounts of information, anytime, anywhere, it can be difficult to build the bridges necessary to see symbiotic relationships between us as humans and our environments. We know facts, but we might not be able to apply them to ourselves. The world has one ocean. And it’s the one we depend on to get air in our lunges. When we stand up for an inanimate body of water, we keep ourselves alive, we keep our planet alive, we protect the sacred balance built into everything that is and it matters.

Today, I hope you take a minute to be mindful. Just take a moment for yourself, to appreciate your place in the world and its place in you. You depend on each other. Appreciation, passion, and respect can create meaningful action. That day on the boat let me experience things I hardly knew existed and inspired me to look deeper into them. I began to understand a hidden harmony and my influence on it. After some research, and interesting conversations with the staff on board, I learned about nutrient pollution and ways I can participate in its solution. Something as simple as using specific fertilizer at the proper time of year for your garden can help prevent detrimental oceanic consequences. I as moved by this idea of microscopic creatures creating the atmosphere I need to survive, and I equipped myself with tools to preserve their unique place in our ecosystem.

What moves you? What will you do?

Categories Science

1 thought on “The Lungs of the Earth

  1. Very moving and interesting. I remember reading somewhere that the greatest oxygen producers were not the trees but the algae in the water, and I was surprised. We are indeed a water planet. I’m also struck by the historical fact that there is no “new” water on earth; the water we have, mostly from asteroid bombardments billions of years ago, is the only water we get.


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