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Posted by on Mar 3, 2014 in Evironment, Life | 11 comments

Dilution is the Cure for Pollution…

in aquariums. For many years, I had various aquariums. While the saltwater aquariums were interesting and very challenging, I still love my freshwater planted tanks. There’s a very good reason for this… I’m lazy.

Aquariums are tiny little ecosystems. As soon as you put fish in them, the trouble starts. Fish are polluters. They pee, crap, and drop food all over the place. Fish pee is high in nitrogen compounds, which are toxic to fish.

The cure for this is dilution. Every week or so, you remove between 15%-50% of the water in the tank and replace it with clean (prepared!) water. Assuming a tank is well mixed (and they should be), you will remove about 15% to half of the toxic nitrogen compounds. If you siphon up the poo and uneaten food, then you prevent further build up as well.

In the freshwater tank, there are some beneficial bacteria that can chemically alter nitrogen compounds, but not very much. The key to pollution is dilution.

In the saltwater tank, there are highly beneficial bacteria and much of the effort in a saltwater tank is keeping them happy. With a light enough nitrogen load (few fish and other animals), the bacteria will keep the nitrogen compounds from reaching toxic levels.

That’s the really hard part. You have to keep a dozen parameters in perfect synchronicity for the saltwater tank. The freshwater tank is more forgiving. Plus, you can add plants. Live aquatic plants are great nitrogen sinks. They suck it up and build more leaves and such. It’s much easier to trim a couple of leaves off a plant than do a major water change.

In 2005, Hurrican Rita caused a massive amount of damage to the town I was living in. We were six weeks without power. My saltwater tank… well, the less said about it the better. It was horrible… we’re talking anatomy lab in a non-air-conditioned building in Texas high summer bad. The freshwater tank? I didn’t lose a single fish. No pumps were running, no filters were running, the only light was from the windows and the only food was the plants and the minuscule shrimp I had growing in the tank. Six weeks without power and I didn’t lose a single fish. I tested the water and it was the same as when I left.

Maybe plants are a key to pollution as well.

The reason I bring this up is that we don’t have any way of diluting the pollution on Earth. As I was walking today, a dump truck drove by and it smelled horrid. But only for a second. Then the wind diluted the pollution to the point I couldn’t smell it. But unlike my aquariums, we can’t just replace half our atmosphere with clean, unpolluted air. We can’t replace half the ocean with clean, prepared saltwater.

Whatever pollution we generate stays in our system.

Excess carbon dioxide acidifies the oceans and is a greenhouse gas. Methane (mainly from farting cows and natural gas leaks) is  a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but it only stays in the atmosphere for a few years instead of thousands like carbon dioxide. The sulfur and nitrogen compounds cause acid rain. And don’t get me started on oils and that kind of thing.

Plants may be a help, they are a help. But as the temperature increases, plants lose the ability to clean the air. Don’t let the climate change deniers fool you. Some increase in carbon dioxide is helpful for plants, but only a very small increase. After that, it becomes harmful to plants to. We (as a species) are also destroying our natural plant cover and replacing them with seasonal plant cover. And that doesn’t remove material from the system, it just borrows it and replaces it shortly (corn grows, then becomes methane from farting cows).

I often try to think of a way we could permanently git rid of some of this pollution. But right now, fossil fuels are adding 9 gigatons (9,000,000,000 tons) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year.

Think of this like the US government budget. At this point, we’re reducing the deficit. That is, how much in debt we go each year. But the total debt is still increasing, even at a slower rate. Same with carbon dioxide. As we convert more to renewables and the like, we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced. But all the research that even if we stopped fossil fuel use tomorrow, we’re commited to a 4 degree Celsius rise in the average global temperature… and we’re nowhere near ready to stop fossil fuel production.

  • Void L. Walker

    I used to have 2 aquariums. One in particular was my favorite: it housed a sea urchin named Rob. Cleaning it was a bitch, and one time the little bastard pricked me. Fond memories. My finger was swollen up for a week.

    9 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually? Jesus H. fuck. That’s frightening. Smilodon, have you ever engaged a climate change denier?

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      Oh yeah. Remind me to tell you about zoopox. Got that one time, worse than the flu and food poisoning combined.

      I have engaged climate deniers, not as much though. I’m working on a book about denialism right now.

      • Void L. Walker

        You’re working on a book? Damn, that’s good to know. Any idea when we’ll get to read it? Zoopox just sounds nasty…

        Yeah climate deniers are frustrating, but pale by comparison to creationists. It’s one thing to deny something as often subtle (as far as immediate appearances are concerned) as climate change, another entirely to deny something so glaringly obvious as evolution. Still, denying anything that’s readily apparent is absurd….but our species is so good at it!

        • SmilodonsRetreat

          My two big denial groups are creationists and anti-GMO activists. I’ve lost friends over the latter.

          As to the book… I’m working on it. I’m going to finish a damn book for once. Really. I’m about 20,000 words into it. So it’s little more than a pamplet at this point. My writing group hasn’t met in a while and I don’t have much feedback.

          We had white spot on some of our pink lady zoas.They were beautiful. So, we made a bath with the meds and took them out of the tank, soaked them. I used a syringe to blow the stuff all over them. I’d finish one, give to the missus, she’d hand me another one. That was Friday morning. By Saturday afternoon, we both stomach cramps, we could barely move. And we had a 2-year-old to deal with.

          Turns out the nerve toxin emitted by zoas is skin permeable. It lasted until Monday morning. Gah, that was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.

          • Void L. Walker

            MY God, that sounds like hell. Nature certainly has invented some powerful weapons, which has been another interest of mine: the evolution of defensive/offensive measures. Perhaps in the future that could be another post?.

            I would totally give feed back on your book, in a heart beat. But I realize that we do not know eachother. In any case, I’m really excited to read it!

  • _Arthur

    To get rid of 9 Gt of carbon dioxide, we’d just need plants to generate 9 gigatons worth of new biomass every year (slightly more than that, since the plant biomes is mostly water, then cellulose + lignin), and then make sure that this new biomass never rots nor burn.
    The very best kind of tree we’d need, would generate logs of nearly pure concentrated carbon, that we could collect and then bury deep in some abandonned coal mine. That would clean up the air in no time.

  • hyperzombie

    Don’t let the climate change deniers fool you. Some increase in carbon dioxide is helpful for plants, but only a very small increase.

    I am not a denier but All plants are different in this regard, some respond very well to massive increases in CO2 others no so much, but they all respond and none decrease biomass production.

    But all the research that even if we stopped fossil fuel use tomorrow, we’re committed to a 4 degree Celsius rise in the average global temperature…

    I have never see research that has claimed this…How can you say “All”, i have seen studies from 0.8 to 2.9 C if we stopped now. Look at Hansen et al scenario C.

    The planet is not a fish tank, that is like comparing a petri dish to the tropics.

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      I just found this article and haven’t fully digested it, but it’s experimental data based on estimated CO2 levels in the year 2100. http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/effects-of-rising-atmospheric-concentrations-of-carbon-13254108

      I’ll have to think about it. But note that while biomass does increase in the plants studied, the nutritional value of crops is lowered and the yield of other plants isn’t changed. At least that’s what I’m reading right now.

      But yes, the Earth is very different than a fish tank. We can’t just get rid of excess materials that are harming us like we can for our tanks.

      • hyperzombie

        I just found this article and haven’t fully digested it, but it’s experimental data based on estimated CO2 levels in the year 2100. http://www.nature.com/scitable

        Mostly just a review of the FACE studies

        That confirms what I said earlier, all plants show some effect from enhanced CO2, some way more than others.

        I’ll have to think about it. But note that while biomass does increase in the plants studied, the nutritional value of crops is lowered and the yield of other plants isn’t changed. At least that’s what I’m reading right now.

        Lower in protien

        We can’t just get rid of excess materials that are harming us like we can for our tanks.

        Not only can we, we are doing it (in NA). Air is cleaner, water is cleaner, Agriculture is more sustainable, CO2 intensity is going down…Whats not to like….Woo Hoo go science..