Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

Although striking concentrations of plastic particulate matter is found in the Arctic–up to 12,000 micro plastic particles in a liter of sea ice!–levels of plastics blown into the arctic atmosphere from eight million tons of plastics entering oceans each year, at times estimated at 12.7 million metric tons, the levels of population-wide ecotoxicology of this influx of plastic particles is not yet clearly known, although laboratory-based studies reveal the ability of nano plastics to enter the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier, and move across the placenta. (People can ingest in their food 52,000 plastic particles a year—counting those ale to be inhaled a total of 121,000.). Yet if the arctic waters may be the greatest site of plastic pollution, little is known about the health impacts of the surprisingly scary density of micro plastics in arctic sea ice, as sub-surface currents move concentrations of microplastics to the poles.


Although the SF Bay waters are more stationary, perhaps, than the large numbers of plastics that arrive in the Arctic oceans, and less movement or outflow occurs to the ocean, the ability of polar fish, blue mussels, and snow crabs as well as deep-sea startfish have been found to ingest microplastics–even in the SF Bay, an astoundingly large six pieces of plastic were found within small fish and sea stars. It is possible that sea stars may have failed to digest or process the microscopic pieces of plastic that outnumber plankton in some parts of the oceans. This might make the contribution of microplastics, as much as the rising near-shore temperatures of the ocean waters, a possible cause of coastal pollution that could have contributed to sea star die-offs from 2013,–when the wasting disease devastated nearshore habitat.

If dense coastal populations define the Bay Area, and have led waste facilities to dump increasing amounts of plastic into the Bay waters, as storm drains, creeks, and street overflow contribute more micros plastics to ocean waters–and the micro plastics from car tires may by far outnumber the plastic beads in cosmetics, toothpastes, or facial creams, and contribute to the South Bay being 330 times more polluted than Lake Huron, according to SFEI’s Rebecca the Bay Area has become so densely criss-crossed by car traffic that rubber tires have introduced so many Microplastics to the region to have perhaps crossed a threshold in the abilities of some aquatic life to process their presence. Tire abrasion along coastal roads have produced –often from brakes as well as emissions or roadways–likely to be blown into waters and estuaries, and were estimated in a German study to contribute to 80-90% of microplastics pollution near roadways. Indeed, the cost of growing coastal emissions near California, already growing exponentially, demand to be integrated with the cost of plastics in offshore areas from highways–even though the most recent interactive data visualization from the New York Times focusses on on-road land-based effects of emissions, not coastal consequences.

 New York Times/On-Road Driving Emissions Map, 1990-2017/ based on Boston University’s Database of Road Transportation Emissions

While we measure carbon footprints in terms of emissions, we may indeed loose site of the considerable role of tire abrasion and car breaks on coastal highways and urban streets play in the pollution of oceans, from breaking, skidding, and just plain driving that we are not likely to observe from the sessility of the car. The rise of recent findings of the outsized role of abrasion in the accelerated content of plastics in marine environments and coastal habitat demands to be mapped, if not considered in the range of factors that together with increased water temperatures could contribute to the rise of wasting disease; the presence of copper, cadmium and zinc in urban intertidal regions from Vancouver BC to South Carolina suggest abundant polymers–polyethylene, polyurethane, polycarbonate and nylon–curtailed marine habitat of coastal countries from China, Turkey and South Africa to the Philippines, North Korea and United States. With the total of plastics entering the seas approaching According to recent estimates, over 8 million tons annually, the presence of microsplastics cannot be ignored.

But if we have concentrated on the contribution of polluted rivers, the significant role of tire abrasion in spreading microplastics may well pass a threshold beyond coastal wastewater plants and solid waste, and increasing the vectors of flux of plastics in marine environments beyond the macro-plastics dumped into the ocean. The dumping of micro plastics from the tires and breaks of cars threatens the shores on which there is the most driving–much as the water of the Great Lakes seems to be a site of increased plastic garbage that has entered the lake system. If the entrance of micropolastic into the Great Lakes can derive from sources as diverse as agricultural runoff, building materials, clothes that abroad,  or stormwater, the numbers of pieces of litter cast off into the lakes are astounding–especially those bordering the largest consumer societies of the United States, as Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, where a large number of plastic refuse was collected in recent months to try to alleviate the dire situation.

Indeed, the surface abundance of plastic refuse in the lakes is striking–

The large figures offer clear evidence of the increasingly irredeemably anthropocene nature of the world. As the plastic has increasingly entered the human food chain, and appears now in what is locally brewed beer, drinking water, and indeed in wildlife, the dangers of build ups of plastic within our bodies needs to be examined as over 10,000 metric tons of plastic now enters the waters of the Great Lakes every year, breaking down and mixing with other particles and sediment, not moving out to sea, but remaining in the lakes, and not only from human waste. Despite the ban in 2015 on microbeads, the amount of plastic we regularly jettison and employ, from coffee cup lids to tires, sends a large stream of microsplastics to the aquatic environment of increasing proportions, estimated at twenty-two million pounds annually, entering the lake system, as we say goodbye to the possibility of micro plastic-free drinking water. If the pounds in the previous visualization are self-reported plastics found on beaches, the echo the tally of the distribution of concentrations of particulate plastics, 2009-14, if they suggest a proactive readiness to respond to the increasing presence of plastics in the southern Great Laikes.

Does the entrance of micro plastics into the Pacific adversely effect the sea stars that have undergone such huge threats of mortality in wasting disease in recent years, or since 2013? The ingestion of plastics with plankton by sea stars; voracious sea stars might be more likely to consume macro-plastics whole, compromising their physiologies; they certainly consume bivalve mollusks like scallops and mussels more likely to have accumulated microplastics as polystyrene beads in their guts of only 2 μm, or barnacles and lungworms who ingested PVC nanoplastics, dangers to their digestive glands–and potentially to cellular membranes.

Melissa Miner/https://MARINe, UCSC

While the spread of wasting syndrome, first spotted on June 27, 2013, the rapid degeneration of sea stars’ bodily systems in three days from the first appearance of signs on its ectoderm seem to arise in stars stranded on shore in intertidal habitat, but was observed from Vancouver and Victoria, to near Portland, below the Hood River, Van Damme, Ft. Bragg, the San Francisco Peninsula near Big Basin, Monterrey, Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands and Palos Verdes, decimating large twenty-four armed sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides), rainbow stars, giant pink stars, and ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) , the first and last keystone species with strong influences on their environments, and feed on sea urchins and barnacles. Indeed, the possibility of a built up of microplastics in the stomaches of barnacles that is extremely difficult or impossible for sea stars to metabolize suggests a potential compunding of the effects of marine warming, which is most often associated with seaweed declines as warmer waters and less upwelling provide fewer nutrients and plankton.

If the mortality of seaweed is in general associated with warm weather events, as mortality has been associated with warm water events, such as the 1982/83 El Niño period, poor water quality directly impact seaweed species like Feather-Boa Kelp, Egregia menziesii, which ranges in kelp beds from Alaska to Mendocino, but whose absence from regions near to wastewater streams that enter the ocean, of municipal or industrial wastewater–outfalls often associated with endocrine disruptors.

7. There is difficulty chartiing the relation among seaweeds that cluster the rocky shore of the peninsulas of California, from their different density, the questions of their submerged status, and the to tides from a photographic database. Kelp bed distribution from Monterrey to Point Reyes National Seashore are hardly defined as “land” or “sea” and slip out of the clear categories maps employ.

A rich humanization of kelp for centuries, not only because of their biological forms, no doubt, but bioactive nature, as anti-viral agents, seems linguistically mapped in scientific names of seaweed genus. A dominant California genus–nereocystis–that includes the bull kelp is Greek for “Mermaid’s bladder” and the deep biomorphic associations of the prevalence of anatomical terms–bladder, the cystoseria, of which there are far over fifty separate species, from the bearded to the prickly to the creeping; or hair, the chaetomorpha, perhaps a projection of femininity of mermaids, or Acetabluaria known as “mermaid’s wine-glasses”–and many taxa of seaweeds that populate ocean shores, both on account of their pronounced brachiation and complex tissues, but their vesicles of CO2-rich air.

Does such familiar nomenclature reveal a sense of recognition that they, like our ancestors, inhabited shores? Beyond algae named after ferns, plants, mosses, lettuces, or fans, the biotic properties of seaweed structures were an extension of the living coastlines. The living shore that seaweeds define led to the evolution of over two hundred taxa of seaweed flora classified on the Peloponnese, a site of the multiplication of phycological checklists classifying and describing marine vegetation from the early nineteenth century in rich biographic regions of the Aegean and Ionian seas and islands, whose nearly 10,000 miles of coast–16,000 km–overflow with taxa, many of similar familiarity, that offered something of a resource for the naming of seaweed typologies in the nineteenth century.

Mediterranean Marine Science

We all too often erase the shore as a site of fragile health, by emphasizing its primary decorative imagery, and by seeing it as passive and benign. The frequent ways we see the shore today, indeed, may be in terms of beaches where lie submarine cables, abstracted from any sense of a living shoreline, but entering a pristine sea of resort towns in Virginia, beside a range of pictorial starfish, gulls, turtles, and sharks whose cartoonish forms reveal our alienation from the oceanic–if idyllically shown below, is stripped of signs of humanity.

The ocean is a medium in which cables are lain on the ocean floor, an environment that has been transformed to a field for a medium of communication and site of information infrastructure, where the existence of starfish, sea turtles, and shellfish which are shown peacefully coexisting with highly pressurized submarine fiber optic cables that seamlessly run under the shoreline to the ocean floor.

Submarine Internet Cable Network/Infinera (detail)

If this didactic “map” nicely brackets the seascape and the technology of submarine internet cables from one another as separate domains, that lie beside one another seamlessly, as if to naturalize the place of the inland Data Center and its routers and expansive data storage from the seashore scene that erases any fault line to a nearby pleasant habitat of pristine blue, the disappearance into the landscape is also insidious, and opaque..

One is reminded of the diptychs by which Trevor Paglen has unmasked the coexistence of the environments of NSA cables and the beaches of Fire Island and Mastic Beach, NY, where transatlantic cables of national security information lie buried beneath a vacation spot into an ocean where they are not seen.


But presence of seaweed in our coastal oceans in California reveals the fragility of our local ecosystems, and the need to look more closely at the overlooked–and seaweeds have occupied a place of the biologically overlooked almost until the nineteenth century. As scientists of seaweed collected new specimens that observed their growth and biological role, the dominant image that many seaweed specimens had was decisively decorative, emphasizing the preservation of the delicate artifice observed in algal forms. The admiration of the structure of kelp “plants” and delicate ramification was almost formal and structural among many evolutionary biologists, as the large brown algae discovered from cold coastal waters grew with the rediscovery of shorelines, but also with biologists’ attention to hidden oceanic environments.

Charles Darwin famously marveled in 1834, arriving in Tierra del Fuego, before abundant kelp forests in the benthic environments during the coastal Survey of South America with considerable prescience–“if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp”–marveling at the kelp beds’ abundance, and at the “numbers of living creatures of all Orders whose existence depends on the kelp.”

The prescience of Darwin’s intimation of the potentiality mortality brought by kelp’s possible impending collapse on such immense scale chastens us today. The role of the survey barque the Admiralty commissioned the South American Survey of the Hydrographic Office pale in comparison to the popularity of the travelogue that Darwin kept and his official account of the voyage; the popular and often reprinted travelogue of naturalistic observations had an impact far beyond kelp beds, but the hydrographic findings continue admonish in strikingly contemporary ways in a world of warming oceans, as we confront the possibility of a collapse of the ecologies of our coastal oceans.

 Conrad Martens, HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego (1833)

The decline of kelp beds in many environments, if in part due to pollution, as the fishes that migrate through the Bosphorus Strait on their way to feed in the nutrient-rich Black Sea, passing through what is a rich benthic environment of corals, crustaceans, jellyfish, and seaweed, even as the fluctuations in seasonal temperatures encourages plankton’s growth. The strait is better known for the survival of Gastropoda and bivalvia adapted to its polluted waters, many of accidentally imported in ballast waters of international shipping and sea transport. Huge blooms of plankton in the Bosphorus have created darker waters in the Strait where seaweed and petroleum once co-mingled peacefully.

The image of the fertile shores in Darwin’s narrative suggested an early voyage of discovery, analogous to that of Levi Strauss, but found meaning written into the forms of coastal life that led to the celebration of the endless abundance by Ernst Haeckle of naturformen, the instructive biomorphic seaweed and jellyfish–and the underwater world, enlisting the graphic arts as an apostle of Darwinism that whose deep geometry of life are almost expressive of a reassuring sense of global order..

8. The end of such waters of abundance that seem witnessed in the once rich waters of the Bosphorus are recently chronicled in the undersea fantasia of the depths of the Bosphorus channel, which has gained new life as a sort of manifesto on global warming, but originally appeared in Orhan Pamuk’s romance with the city’s underground, the Black Book. While the mystery novel is about a family, it is also about the mysteries of Istanbul, a subject of continued attraction and unpacking for Pamuk, who if he does not include the historical Rumi in his novel, Rumi becomes a grounding presence in his book–a redeemer of the value of writing, perhaps, and of being in place. As Rumi served as something of a human geographer for Pamuk to shape his prose, as the lawyer Gelip, his own sense of compass disoriented with the sudden departure of his wife, turns to Rumi’s precept, to “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place,” to commune with the Istanbul in which he has long lived but whose mysteries he has lost sight of, both on land and undersea, as he explores a new cartography of the city in Celâl’s prose–exposing his own vulernability, and having to come to terms with it anew. And aren’t the offshore waters in danger of being our greatest vulnerability as a planet?

Pamuk’s novel spotlights a fictional columnist who romances the past of the city which he sees as able to be envisioned at the bottom of the Straits that lap the sides of its shores, through which course fish, seaweeds, and curious contents long obscured by the flow of waters from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, some from the many tankers who move silently, sometimes hitting river banks, as they move their contents from Asia to Europe. There are many undergrounds, to be sure, in The Black Book, whose layers almost define Istanbul: temporal layers revealed in the range of mannequins of 700-year old skeletal remains of Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Crusaders, and Pisan, Genoese, and Amalfian merchants, as well as Georgian slave girls, which symbolize the underworlds of a sort of double city in which the former inhabitants from previous civilizations of Byzantium, Vivant, Nova Roma, Anthusa, Tsargrad, Miklasgrad, Constantinople, Cospoi, or Istin-Polin had in turn taken refuge from “the overground city that had supplanted it.”

The guide to the layers of this submerged “other world” tells the Istanbullah that his own father had “realized that our history could only survive underground, that life underground was itself a sign of the imminent collapse above, that these passage-ways . . . [and] underground roads strewn with skeletons provided us with a historical opportunity, a chance to create citizens who carried their histories . . .” The secret world of second meanings that distinguishes Istanbul for Pamuk’s protagonist does not include seaweed, but the secret history of past worlds that was found in seaweeds’ living forms may be even more deeply repressed undersea.

The fantasia of the undersea waters and the past that might be ready to emerge from them is encrusted with mollusks and shellfish, but draped with seaweed, as well, as if the rich pasts of Istanbul and Constantinople had migrated below the waters of the Bosphorus as the old city had so quickly modernized, or metastasized to a megacity around the Golden Horn. The underwater world that is revealed by the sinking sea level of the Bosphorus, if caked with seaweed, is a calamity of global warming and climate change tin ‘When Bosphorus Dries Up,” a vision referencing the many cargo ships and tankers that continue to sink in the Straits, with ships of migrants, but when separately repented for the Istanbul Design Biennial as a separate tract, winning broad circulation as a treatise against climate change. Pamuk’s vision of the Bosphorus–might it be titled “The Bosphorus is Sinking?”–described how as the Black Sea warms and the Mediterranean cools, the waters are continuing to “empty into the great caves whose gaping holes lie in wait under the seabed, the same tectonic movements [that] caused Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and he Bosphorus to rise,” as Bosphorus fishermen note boats that run aground where they used to be anchored by chains “as long as a minaret,” prompting them to ask, “‘Isn’t our prime minister at all interested in knowing why?'”

The drying up of the Bosphorus is not hard to imagine, even if that would compromise its once vital undersea life. Perhaps it is already reflected in the lack of life now in these once-teeming waters. During a hot summer, writes the narrator, it’s “not hard to imagine this bog drying up in some parts while remaining muddy in others, like the bed of a humble river that waters a small town in the middle of nowhere,” and perhaps the impending withdrawal of waters will create new neighborhoods on its once muddy floor, as “among toppled wrecks of oil City Line ferries will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed.” The undersea world of seaweeds suggest a lost civilization, and overlooked inheritance, although it plays a vital part in the world by allowing our current oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Melancholy views of old Istanbul seeking to capture a fleeting past may animate the fantasia of the Strait without waters. The melancholy of Istanbul that seems linked to the power of the straits, where light falls on its surface in the haunting urban Atget-like photographs Pamuk has taken so frequently of the Bosphorus that seem to document the city’s relation to the river over time, and recall how French photographers like Charles Marville and Atget tried to capture the transition of the city to modernity–or, closer to home, photographs by the great Armenian-Turkish photographer Ara Güler. The images seem to capture the staring out over the Bosphorus–which is not only done by Istanbullahs, but most all visitors the city–to try to capture or encompass its majestic size as a water body, as if it contained the rich cultural history spanning from Constantine’s Roman Empire through European Crusaders to modern criminals.

The catalogue of the undersea world recapitulates mental processes of observing a photograph: Erdağ Göknar reminds us Pamuk’s columnist observed, “Every photograph is not just the image of a frozen moment, but of the past and future too. Because to take photographs is to nurture hope.” Can we evoke a similar relation to the maps of the offshore world?

Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk
Bosphorus, Christophe Guilmoto

For the offshore is rich with living histories, in ways that biologists as Haeckle and Darwin quickly realized, and Haeckle promoted as naturformen worth detailed observation. But these worlds that may be in danger of being similarly fleeting.

Pamuk imitated the almost recognizable voice of the irascible attractive romantic Istanbullah columnist Celâl, whose own picaresque volubility serves as a Pied Piper to call out sympathetic readers. Celâl sought to capture “picturesque” histories excavating urban memories for his readers, in The Black Book. The chronicler columnist surveyed the floor of a dried up Bosphorus in detail, imagining what the recession of the waters reveal as historical palimpsest beneath seaweeds hold ruins of an urban past, covered in the mosses of the sea, from the masts of sunken ships to figures of armed crusaders mounted on skeletal horses, raising spears encrusted with mussel beds, abandoned Cadillacs encrusted with urchins and mollusks, moss-covered Ancient Greek coins and pens: the old admixture of fish, seaweed, and cultures receded, but the modern cataclysm of climate change resurrects lost Istanbul on its seabed.

The increasingly shallow waters of the same straits continue to afford perilous passage for tankers. Pollution levels haven’t ceased traffic in the narrowest channel of international navigation, or stopped the long historical use for swimming, fishing, and sailing, even as construction projects on each site of the narrow Strait polluted its blue waters.

Celâl’s image of the dried floor of the Bosphorus lacks only four horsemen. But its apocalyptic view of the emptying of life from a Strait that is suddenly inhabited by the dead souls that form it is a pre-Messaianic apocalypticism borrowed from the Quran and Ibn Khaldun, a truly bleak view that suggests not redemption; it evokes in its bleakness and recycling of the past an image of the end of times woven by the Dajjal, an Islamic version of the Antichrist, portended by a spread of natural disasters to a widespread overthrow of the natural order and destruction of the Islamic community, as a black cloud descends and on the earth, and evil temporarily returns in full force to the world before redemption.

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

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