We love getting submissions from Climate Stew followers, so I was thrilled when Jen in PA wrote me about her recent trip to the New Bedford whaling museum and important connection she made to our modern fossil fuel pollution problem.
I’ve written about New England whaling and energy before. (see: Whaling, Quakers, and Alternative Energies)
Jen provides a novel twist to the story of whaling including the glee whales might have felt when they were no longer being targeted in such a large scale. A new form of energy made their oil far less valuable. Ah, but there was an unseen cost.
The Day the Whales Rejoiced
On a recent visit to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA, I learned that one of the events which contributed to the decline in the whaling industry was the discovery of oil in Titusville, PA in the mid 1800s.
I then came across the following cartoon across the street at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, published in 1861, of sperm whales having a party to celebrate this discovery (because they won’t be killed as much, as crude oil would replace the highly valued sperm oil). Note the sign in the background that reads oils well that ends well. Whaling did still continue but eventually declined.
Salvation at a cost–Ocean Acidification
Little did these 1861 partying whales know that the discovery of this oil was not their salvation but the beginning of just another means to their end. Now over 150 years later, our oceans are suffering from falling ph levels and increased acidification, affecting the food chain, posing starvation for our whales. Mollusks (and other shelled creatures including corals) pull the ingredients they need to build their shells (calcium and carbonate) from the ocean.
But as our oceans are absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, the chemistry results in increased acid and reduced carbonate; as a result, baby mollusks are forming deformed and weak shells and are dying because they have insufficient carbonate (see PBS Nova: Lethal Seas, May 2015, a great explanation of this chemistry for the lay person). Whatever eats the mollusks also suffers, and so on and so forth all the way up to our partying sperm whales.
Save the People!
So, while the 1861 sperm whales were living large thinking their ship had come in (puns actually intended), it was not to be so for their descendants. I wonder if anyone could foresee in 1861 that this oil well discovery would lead to some of today’s problems.
Like Marvin Bloom says, it’s not just about the polar bears (but Marvin, we need to care about them too so please don’t take this and complain about whales to Peterson!)
Maybe someday there will be another cartoon and this time the sperm whales will be celebrating as the infrastructure switches to clean renewable energy such as solar.
Lessons for a more stable, sustainable future
Can we learn from this cartoon – that when we exploited one natural and unsustainable resource (whales) and replaced it with another (crude oil), it was cause for a false celebration because it was just a temporary solution?
I would hope that the great transition that Timothy Meadows refers to in the Climate Stew podcast is the final party for our whales, with no hidden or unknown dangers that could hurt the whales of 150 years in the future (and us for that matter), so this time, we have the most healthy and sustainable solution for us all.
Thank you, Jen! Note: I contacted Marvin Bloom for a statement about Polar Bears. He writes,
“Polar bears are dangerous and disgusting creatures, a lot like humans, so I guess if we are going to save people, we might as well save the polar bears too. Great piece, Jen!”
If you would like to contribute an article you wrote, a reflection, a link to a resource, or an idea for a video or podcast episode, just contact me here at Climate Stew.