Wednesday, June 10, 2009
THE OXYGEN (O2) FACTOR AND TREE CONUNDRUM
By Namakando Nalikando Sinyama The importance of Oxygen as a life giving gas has never been doubted. It has long been suspected to be the main constituent of the proverbial ‘Breath of Life’. The paradoxical natures of the properties of this gas are that when breathed in is capable of sustaining Life. However, when breathed in, in its purest form can be poisonous even deadly to human beings. It is a component of water (H2O), one of the most important liquids on the planet. We perhaps more endearingly relate to it when it saves the lives of our ailing and incapacitated beloved ones, as they are kept alive by it on life support systems in hospitals. Its allotrope however, in the form of ozone O3 is very poisonous and is the basis of the protective layer that shields the earth from harmful ultra-violet rays from the sun. This type of radiation is potentially carcinogenic in nature. Oxygen is the cardinal molecule needed to support most biophysical life-sustaining processes on earth such as intra cellular respiration and oxidation. All major classes of structural molecules in living organisms, such as proteins(which are synthesized in the endoplasmic reticulum) and sugars or carbohydrates that are needed for aerobic tissue respiration in the mitochondria, to form energy carrying molecules of ADT(Adenosine Triphosphate)and ADP(Adenosine Diphosphate) respectively. Fats also contain oxygen, as do the major inorganic compounds that comprise animal shells, teeth, and bone. At standard temperature and pressure two atoms of the element bind to form dioxygen, a colorless, odorless, tasteless diatomic gas with the formula O2. Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen and helium and the most abundant element by mass in the Earth's crust. Diatomic oxygen gas constitutes 20.9% of the volume of air. Oxygen was independently discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, in 1773 or earlier, and Joseph Priestley in Wiltshire, in 1774, but Priestley is often given priority because his writings were published earlier. The name oxygen was coined in 1777 by Antoine Lavoisier, whose experiments with oxygen helped to discredit the then-popular phlogiston theory of combustion and corrosion. Oxygen is produced industrially by fractional distillation of liquefied air, use of zeolites to remove carbon dioxide and nitrogen from air, electrolysis of water and other means. Uses of oxygen include the production of steel, plastics and textiles; rocket propellant; oxygen therapy; and life support in aircraft, submarines, spaceflight and diving. The atmosphere is composed of approximately 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen, with trace amounts of other elements. The air we breathe has atmospheric oxygen in it, but the atmosphere also helps to make the earlier mentioned protective envelope for the planet. There are two sources of atmospheric oxygen, but the primary way in which the Earth manufactures oxygen for the atmosphere is through the process of photosynthesis by mostly higher plants. Photosynthesis accounts for 98% of the world's atmospheric oxygen, while the photodissociation of water vapour by solar ultraviolet radiation composes the other 1-2%.The other source of atmospheric oxygen is through the photosynthesis of microscopic organisms such as cyanobacteria and plankton in the ocean, and higher flora in the form of terrestrially anchored trees. Cyanobacteria are members of the phylum comprising photosynthetic single-celled organisms that lack an enclosed nucleus or other specialized cell structures. They are generally referred to as Prokaryota. In some classification systems they are classified as algae and called blue-green algae. Cyanobacteria contain the same kind of chlorophyll that is found in green plants, but it is distributed throughout the cell rather than confined in chloroplasts. Source: (Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)Cyanobacteria exist throughout the world in different habitats. They are abundant on tree bark and rocks and in moist soil, where they carry on nitrogen fixation; some symbiotically coexist with fungi to form lichen. These lichens manifest themselves as greyish or whitish patches on barks of trees and on rock surfaces. They are very sensitive to the slightest form of air pollution, which they react to in different ways such as break down, discolouration or death. Therefore, in towns on the Copperbelt Province of Zambia for instance, their presence on trees in any given forests may be indicative of the relative ‘purity’ of the air, that is, being largely free from severe atmospheric pollutants. The general rule being, the more these lichens exist on trees in different parts of the country’s indigenous forests or urban trees, the less industrialised those parts are. The explanation is that, industrialisation over the years has come to be associated with varying levels of environmental air pollution either in the form of dry deposition (microscopic toxic dust particulates that settle on the tree trunks and on the surfaces of leaves thus interfering with photosynthesis because the light absorbing potential of the leaves on their upper epidermis is reduced. The discharge of an essential ‘waste’ product of OXYGEN through the stomata in the lower epidermis is greatly reduced also. The other form of pollution is wet deposition in the form of dilute corrosive acidic liquids that form when rainwater combines with noxious gases like sulphur dioxide (which gas the locals have come to call ‘Centre’). This gas is mostly discharged by the mines on the Copperbelt. A strange practice I have observed is that this effluent is usually discharged when the air is very humid or when the daytime temperatures are cool. When these gases mix with water vapour or rainwater, the resulting dilute acids cause varying damage to the palisade parenchyma and spongy parenchyma, which make up the mesophyll layer of the leaf. What has always worried me for years is that, despite these facts being very well known to humans, we continue to behave in a very irresponsible way towards the living environment, which is indispensable to our survival as a species. In his book, ‘The Road to Survival’ Vogt put it into perspective when he said, “Man is the only organism known that lives by destroying the environment indispensable to his survival. Parasites tend to do this but their destructive effectiveness is limited by the absence of intelligence. Man uses his brain to tear down. It is only rarely, geographically or historically that he has armed to stabilize or to rebuild and the more advanced he is, the more destructive he’s likely to become.” I would like to pose an all-important question to every serious and responsible human being who values the occasional breathing in and out and the benefits that these involuntary actions come with as they have long been taken for granted. Apart from the two methods mentioned above by which this life supporting gas is made in nature, is there any other source of atmospheric Oxygen known to Man? Why then do we indiscriminately cut down TREES? Why are we polluting our oceans? Should we NOT be planting more TREES in a more focused, deliberate and planned manner? You know, not in the current usually occasional commemoratory fashion marred by official and political banter encouraged by disappointing media pettiness, as these events end up being mere publicity stunts by officialdom. Let us visualize for one minute this hypothetical scenario, if we continue on the same course as humans, imagine all the trees on the planet got cut without replacement and utilized for whatever purpose. Where would the Oxygen for the inhabitants of the Earth need to breathe to breathe come from? My challenge to you all is that, as you work in your offices, before you misuse your paper by unnecessarily doodling illegible, unintelligent little nothings and later, without thinking about Nature, throw away that piece of paper. Know this today; that to get another ream of paper for your printer, a new TREE would have to be cut down to mill you more of the paper! More unclean or environmentally unfriendly energy would be needed to power any paper recycling initiative, for those governments that have had the good sense to support such officially recognized, planned for and funded regular environmental protection programmes. Perhaps, to bring these issues more closer to home, many will agree and admit to having observed a very queer behaviour among most Zambian households. When they move into a new home, most families somehow have a self-destructive impulse kick in and this drives them to go round the house and cut down the biggest trees they see in their new surroundings. Of course, later they ceaselessly complain about how dusty the interior of the house is and how stuffy the indoor atmosphere feels! How there is too much blinding glare from the sun’s direct insolation making its way into their living quarters. They will wonder how their surroundings are largely devoid of any wild bird, insect or animal life to admire. How they cannot find outdoor shaded space to straighten their legs in an airy surrounding to read a good book. For the few of them that find time to occasionally read that is! Depending on what one has chosen to be their source of universal wisdom, or whether one is a Creationist or Evolutionist, with due respect to both schools of thought, I do not remember reading anywhere it was said or decreed that, “Let there be Oxygen!” So, you see, as we learn from the immense nature and environmental protection wisdom of Native American Indian folklore, which is forever immortalized in their chanting and dance (These hypnotic musical tunes I strongly recommend if one is to find their way back to Mother Nature). These teach us that, somehow Nature has granted human beings an opportunity to influence their life on earth in a very dramatic way if they so wished. These Native American Indian tribes like the Kiowa, Apache, Navajo (Pronounced ‘Navaho’), Illinois, Cherokee, Miami and Sioux Indians have over the years developed extensive and elaborate knowledge and safeguarded rich sustainable environmental conservation traditions worthy of envy and which Africa can greatly benefit from. In Africa however, we cut down oxygen producing factories of higher flora (Trees) to plant smaller grasses and less efficient shrubs for food. The cultivated lands quickly loose fertility and before long the peasant farmers are sapped into a dependency on inorganic soil nutrient enriching chemicals, which they can ill afford. The cycle of poverty continues! The Native American Indians also do this but their forest covered land area is way bigger than Africa’s and for Africa this unfortunately is compounded by the ever-looming threat of the burgeoning desertification exacerbated by the expanding SAHEL. The scenario just gets worse with the shocking unplanned nature of Africa’s traditional natural resource exploitation methods. To harvest forest fruits like Uapaca kirkiana Spp. (Masuku) these fruit trees are chopped down in Africa. When they decide to selfishly intervene in the metamorphic order of nature, by disrupting the life cycle of the beautiful African monarch butterfly Danaus chrysippus Spp. belonging to the family Danaidae, order Lepidoptera , in a display of a rare form of myopia, these rural inhabitants cut down the Mopani trees onto which the larvae stage of different butterfly species or caterpillars/worms are perched. In as much as I personally, wholeheartedly appreciate and empathize with the rural poor who have had the misfortune of suffering the brunt of the country’s economic malaise, justifiably have to turn to Nature for sustenance. The only problem sadly, is that, this is done while lacking the most basic precepts of Nature Conservancy and environmental stewardship. The clear understanding of these peculiar anthropogenic aspects of the African man would go a long way in unraveling the paradox and anomaly of African underdevelopment. When this is done we would have no one to blame but ourselves for the precarious situation we are in. The above state of affairs should further cause us to monitor and analyse our own ecological footprint and how its cumulative effect is directly or indirectly contributing to Climate Change over time. There is currently a possibility of us suffering from an error of attribution in as far as environmental degradation is concerned because we always look to the advanced or industrialized North as being the main culprits who are damaging earth. Considering the fragility of some of the ecosystems we live in, my conclusion has been that, per capita we can cause and inflict some degree of telling damage to the ecological fabric without having to necessarily erect sky-piercing chimneystacks constantly belching industrial filth in the air western style! Growing up in rural Barotseland, I vividly remember, although I beg to be corrected on this one, how I never not even once saw any single mound of charcoal being burnt but we still made our fire and cooked our food from twigs and dead wood picked from the forest floor. My inquisitive mind lead me to inquire why this was so, my heart was gladdened to be told that it is illegal, in accordance with the legal provisions of The Barotse Native Government and those of The Barotseland Agreement 1964, to cut down a living Tree in Barotseland. These laws had for some time protected Cryptosepalum exfoliatum pseudotaxus ("Mukwe"), which is dominant, and sometimes only occurring as canopy species. Guibourtia coleosperma is often co-dominant and is an important exploitable timber. Towards central Barotseland, Brachystegia spiciformis, B. longifolia and Colophospermum mopane become more frequent. Other tall canopy trees include Brachystegia floribunda, Syzygium guineense afromontanum, Bersama abyssinica, Erythrophleum africanum and Combretum elaeagnoides. Combretum microphyllum, Uvaria angolensis, Artabotrys monteiroae, and Landolphia. Diospyros undabunda is noticeable where there is a dense thicket understory and epiphytic lichens are also common. Sadly, due to poor enforcement of these laws by the Barotse Royal Establishment, this is no longer the case as there is also sickening levels of forest degradation even in Barotseland. In contrast, the current wanton cutting down of Trees to burn charcoal in Zambia is seemingly being justified by man’s instinctive desire to put food on the table or support school children. When put into context, this argument cannot hold , as this is being done without giving a thought to what would happen once all the trees are gone. This is surely having a dangerous and irresponsible short-term perspective on life on this ‘Big Blue Marble’ we call Earth. Later, poor Africans cry foul when their mushroom yields dwindle annually and micro-fauna kills drop to worrying levels. It clearly goes against all universally appreciated conventional wisdom and good sense of sustainable development. The truth of the matter is that in order to survive these perilous times as a species, we ought to be behaving better by positively contributing to the quality of life on the living environment so crucial to our survival by acting more responsibly. In this way, we become active participants in the sustenance of all Life on earth, as we know it. As human we have placed ourselves in a very lofty position and further claim to be the most superior form of life. Our actions are not living up to these claims and ideals as we have shown to be very disorganized in the way we continue to behave towards our natural environment. I have seen tiny representatives of the phylum athropoda (i.e. Ants) that behave in a more organized and orderly manner than people do especially when queuing up for a limited resource. On the contrary, Ants are embarrassingly in impressive lines and have the courtesy of giving each other when their feelers touch guided by pheromone alone!So , we stand challenged to live up to the true meaning of our creed. Altering our current behaviour would not be deemed necessary if we were in a situation where oxygen was merely automatically pumped out of some celestially adrift gas cylinders! Therefore, I implore each one of us that the next time we breath in and out, let us think about what we have done, are doing and can do to improve both the quality and quantity of atmospheric Oxygen. May I remind each one of us that, “ Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps. Since he is the only one struck by the dramatic difference between the way things are and how they ought to be.” – HAZLITT, 19 th Century writer. By using scientific knowledge and ecological wisdom we can manage earth. Let us humanize earth. Namakando Nalikando Sinyama, B.Sc Forestry,BAHRM The Author is an Environmentalist and a freelance writer on Nature Conservation.