Mr. Cope's Cave: Things Americans Don't Spend Much Time Thinking About: The Dew on the Marble


In case you missed Friday's visit to Mr. Cope's Cave, I announced the launch of a new, ongoing series: "Things Americans Don't Spend Much Time Thinking About." I explained then that I picked America because I'm an American, as is my audience. What I didn't say was that, as citizens of the most influential nation on the planet—at least, for the time being—I feel we have somewhat of a duty to, at the very least, think about certain, vital things. By that, I mean things that include all Earthlings, whether or not they are Americans.

For instance... oxygen. If you are one of those who thought you would just die if you didn't get a new iPhone 6 when they came out, maybe it would put things in a more reasonable perspective if you spent a moment or two thinking about what would happen if you didn't get some oxygen every few seconds.

See what I mean? When you really think about it, it is often those things we hardly ever think about that play the most important, most urgent, part in our lives.

I mentioned Friday that this first entry of this series would be subtitled "The Dew on the Marble," in reference to the Earth's oceans. I admit, I don't usually think about the Earth's oceans much either, not until something bad happens in one of them. Like, a shark attack off the Florida Keys, or a giant, Texas-sized clot of plastic trash, bobbing up and down in the middle of the Pacific. I sympathize with any locals who never give a thought to the Earth's oceans because, in many ways, the Earth's oceans are as exotic to a landlocked Idaho-lubber as the moon or Mars—although neither you nor I will ever open a can of tuna from the moon, or crack a crab from Mars.

However last week, an airliner went down in the Java Sea. And if there was any good news to be had with that tragedy, the Java Sea is a relatively shallow stretch of water, especially compared to where they figure that other south Asian plane, Flight 370, sank, conjectured to be in the super-deep southern Indian Ocean. The results for the passengers and crew of both planes was pretty much the same, sadly, but for the investigators, it meant they would probably find the wreck of this latest downing and learn what made it happen.

So far, I've told you nothing that you don't already know. But something about this story got me to thinking, first about what separates a shallow sea from a deep one, then about how, in terms of cosmic distances, there really is no such thing as a deep ocean.

Oh yes, I'm sure even 30 feet of water must feel pretty damn deep when it's all on top of you. But considering the Earth has a diameter of just fewer than 8,000 miles, even the deepest, deadest, coldest, darkest hole in the seabed's floor—the Mariana Trench at just fewer than 7 miles deep—starts to sound like a tear drop on a basketball, yes?

Another thing maybe we should think about: We may be able to name all sorts of oceans and seas, straits and bays, gulfs and gyres, but in reality, there is only one body of saltwater. Right? If you don't count those oddball, landlocked lakes like the one down in Utah, or the Dead Sea, it's all the same water, sloshing back and forth from the shores of Antarctica to the shores of Jamaica, from the English Channel to the Great Barrier Reef to the Strait of Magellan to New York Harbor to Finland's fjords to Tahiti's sandy beaches—all the same water, just called different things in different places. Are you thinking about it yet?

The scariest part of all this—to me, at any rate, as I sat thinking about Earth's ocean—is that it is one mighty thin coat of water on one of the smallest planets in one of the least spectacular solar systems in a so-so galaxy. I mean, were you to dip a cantaloupe in a bucket of water, that melon would have, before it dried or dripped off, the same ratio of water coating its rind as Earth has with its 70-percent saltwater skin, proportionately speaking.

Even scarier: There is reason to suppose a neighbor of ours, Mars, may have had part of its surface under a thin skim of water at one time, before, for whatever reason—global warming, perhaps?—it dried off, or dripped off, or drifted off, leaving behind a landscape fit only for rocks and mechanized rovers from NASA.

One more thing we should be thinking more about: The Earth's ocean, the only one we have, is not getting any bigger. The population of us is getting bigger, and radically so. The clot of plastic trash bobbing up and down in the Pacific portion is getting bigger. The levels of pesticides, herbicides, mercury, heavy metals, plastic grocery bags and Dasani bottles, fertilizers, acids, sewage, every yucky thing you want to name, seeping into it, flowing into it, raining into it, washing into it, being dumped into it—all those are getting bigger. But the one body of water, the lungs and heart and circulatory system of the rock we live on?... that is not getting one drop bigger.

Now, don't you think that's something Americans should be thinking about more?