Last summer, I spent my days knee-deep in mud, traipsing around doggedly through the marsh. Here I am with a lovely pair of Sesarma reticulata, or purple marsh crabs. They probably would have pried off a good chunk of my nose if I had let them get any closer to my face. Incidentally, if left to their own devices, these crabs can also snip and ingest chunks of cordgrass at such high rates in certain marshes that the crabs can cause mass die-off of the cordgrass. And in some places, this is already happening.
Human beings pollute their surroundings, including the ocean, and create environments unhealthy for organisms to live in. When we add overfishing and overexploitation to this equation, the number of fish in the affected waters can drop to low levels. Certain predatory marine creatures eat purple marsh crabs and efficiently control their population levels, keeping the crabs’ herbivory and appetites in check.
But when there aren’t enough predatory fish because they’re all fished out of the water and onto our dinner plates, purple marsh crab populations explode and eat a lot of marsh grass, a phenomenon called “runaway herbivory.” The grass that prevents erosion in the marsh slowly erodes and our shores begin to look like receding hairlines instead of Rhode Island coastlines. Sometimes, big chunks of the marsh fall into the water, reducing the seaward extent of the marsh and shrinking our landmass. And Rogaine doesn’t help.
The shrinking of our coastline is an important issue. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past decade — which purple marsh crabs surely have not been! — then you’re aware that climate change is happening. The ice is melting, the sea is rising and storms will likely get stronger. Many are not aware that our shrinking coastlines are as important and equally dangerous to our planet. But it is happening, and the results are as plain as day: Salt marshes are being destroyed.
Salt marshes act as a buffer against sea level rise, waves and storms, all of which are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change. Let’s put it this way: We’re making a mess and throwing away our sponges. As the ice sheets melt and the water rises, our coastal buffers are shrinking, and this makes for a slippery situation.
Unfortunately, the fact that mankind is currently in a dire situation with impending waves — both figurative and literal — about to come crashing down on our shoulders is not necessarily enough for us respond appropriately. Certainly we are making leaps and bounds in environmental policy, but as a student of science, I always feel like there simply isn’t enough political and societal oomph behind the environmental movement given the grimness of the state of our planet. And I believe that we are not wielding hefty enough policy to tackle the bigger monsters of human-caused environmental degradation like climate change.
There is a huge disconnect between doing science and using science, the latter of which — application — is arguably the more important pursuit. The discoverer in me cringes a bit when I belittle the inherent value of obtaining knowledge. Nevertheless, I have been thrust into this world as part of a generation that is responsible for cleaning up our act as living creatures gracing — or perhaps “ruining” is more appropriate — this planet with our presence.
And so I move forward as a scientist not with the enticing words of the wind whispering to me to “Discover all that there is to discover!” but with the words of a Jiminy Cricket-type character sitting on my shoulder and twittering into my ear to “Fix the damage that has been wrought by your predecessors. Please, I beg of you!”
I’m not complaining, I assure you. I accept this burden freely and understand that this is simply what has to be done. It is my responsibility to do science for the sake of the human race rather than just for the sake of science — for knowledge alone. Because of my research last summer in the marsh, where I was out in the field studying the crabs, I have seen the damage humans can do firsthand. And hopefully, as a result of my actions and others’, we will stop the harm we are causing in its tracks. Hopefully, there will be future generations who can study the natural world just for science’s sake — to learn, expand and grow.
But for now, all we can do is change our behaviors. We must all continue to try to live more sustainable lives and make a smaller negative impact on our surroundings and the environment. Everyone is not capable of enacting or enforcing hefty policy, but we can all do things like recycle our plastic so less of it ends up in the ocean, or bicycle to the corner market down the street instead of driving in order to reduce our carbon footprint.
Go to the salt marsh and see what nature has to offer: the odd fiddler crabs with their lopsided claws, the bulbous strands of pickleweed that actually taste like pickles if you chew on them, and the vast stretches of cordgrass that survive despite being covered by water during high tide and exposed to the harsh combination of salt, sun, and heat during low tide. Think about how every square meter of that marsh buffers storms from flooding and wrecking nearby homes. Resolve to make your own small positive difference on the world — if not for me, if not for nature, then for future generations. Please, I beg of you. For the sake of science!
Elena Suglia ’15 is a biology concentrator, science communicator, writer and rugby player.