An 'after life' as fuel or food

Carter Haydu
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Once upon a time, zooplankton and algae went about their daily lives of eating, reproducing and dying, leaving behind their earthly remains at the bottom of the lakes and seas of some prehistoric era.

As further layers settled atop this organic material over countless eons, intense pressure and heat changed the composition of those once living creatures — eventually resulting in the formation of petroleum.

Flash forward a few dozen million years, and in 1947 a large oil field opened up in Leduc, Alta.

It is amazing how life and death at one moment into time can have such bizarre, fantastic and unforeseen consequences in the future.

While it is doubtful too many Mesozoic sea bugs were contemplating what would become of their cellular composition after a seemingly infinite number of generations had passed, it is likely if they had such forward-thinking abilities, they probably would be surprised to find themselves one day serving as fuel for contemporary automobiles and industrial progress.

However, it really was inevitable when one thinks about it. I’m no biologist, chemist or physicist (in fact, you could say math and me just never added up), but I presume it works out that given naturally-occurring conditions and the truth of time and pressure, fossil fuels were a simple logical consequence.

Perhaps just as mind-boggling and amazing is the ‘second life’ of the blue whale. For when a member of the largest species succumbs, his or her mammoth carcass will provide nutrients and habitat to organisms for almost a century.

It all begins once the dead 160 tonne sea beast settles to the ocean floor. A multitude of fish and sharks will eat mounds of meat, each, a day. Even still, it takes as many as five years to remove all the accessible flesh from this largest creature to ever inhabit the Earth.

Then, for the next five years or so, millions of marine worms called polychaetes consider the carcass ‘home,’ living their lives consuming the remnants of whale proteins, while further animals such as crustaceans and mollusks will become part of the whale’s post-life habitat.

Once there is nothing left but a skeleton, bacteria go to work feeding on the fat within the bones, creating energy-rich sulphide as a byproduct. This stage can last for 80 years.

And so, the whale’s death gives rise to an entire mini-ecosystem deep below the ocean’s surface.

Certainly, there is optimism to be had in the promise that the stuff making up a person will not just disappear once his or her consciousness ceases to exist (or at least ceases to exist in any form we can detect).

If I might borrow from Eastern philosophy, ‘Qi’ survives past the self, goes back into nature and continues to circulate through this world in one form or another, or so it seems.

In that sense, death is just a very natural part of life, and nothing for anyone to fear. Our energy isn’t going to nowhere, but rather is constantly being reprocessed and redistributed into the world. Such reincarnation, more or less, is a fate that awaits us all.

Who wouldn’t want their bodies to sustain vast species for years to come? And given the right conditions, one might even get to be petroleum products for some unforeseeable future industrial civilization.


Carter Haydu can be reached at 691-1265.

Geographic location: Leduc

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