[Note: This item comes from friend Brian Berg. DLH]
What Bikini Atoll Looks Like Today
Sixty years after the nuclear tests, the groundwater is contaminated and the coconuts are radioactive. But are the coral reefs thriving?
By Sam Scott
Nov 20 2017
It’s a promise that remains unfulfilled today. Normal life on the atoll is impossible, because the groundwater is contaminated. No one lives there apart from a half-dozen custodians who tend a small ghost village. All food and water must be imported.
“One of the guys working on the boat we were living on was of Bikinian descent,” López says. “Talking to him put in perspective what his family went through and how weird it is now to make a living off bringing scientists and tourists to the islands when his own family can’t live there.”
And despite Bikini’s remove, the rest of the world wasn’t beyond the reach of the blasts, which is how Palumbi grew interested in the atoll. The explosions — along with similar tests by other nations — caused a spike in atmospheric levels of carbon 14, a radioactive isotope that’s naturally created by cosmic rays interacting with nitrogen. Like other forms of carbon, C-14 is readily absorbed by plants and, in turn, animals.
“Every human on Earth had twice as much radioactive C-14 after those tests as before,” Palumbi says.
The “bomb pulse” isn’t harmful, but it is traceable, leaving an indelible mark on cells that scientists have learned to harness to remarkable effect. Traditional carbon dating — measuring the half-life of C-14 — estimates when an organism died. Bomb pulse forensics, by contrast, reveal how long something has been alive. Because C-14 levels have been steadily dropping since the open-air nuclear tests ceased, scientists can look at a cell’s concentration of C-14, cross-check it against the declining atmospheric levels of the isotope, and determine when the cell was born.
The method has been used for everything from measuring the age of ringless trees in the Amazon to examining whether humans generate new olfactory bulb neurons into adulthood. In Palumbi’s world, it helped establish that many creatures in the deep sea are far older than previously thought. “All of a sudden beluga whales live twice as long because we realized we had gotten the calibration wrong,” says Palumbi, who grew fascinated with the technique while writing his 2014 popular-science book, The Extreme Life of the Sea.
Palumbi’s varied career has focused on the genetics and evolution of a range of marine animals, from whales to shrimp. He’s also had a longtime interest in how the ocean fights back against human-made disasters. His book The Death and Life of Monterey Bay details that body of water’s recovery from a century of abuse.
But the idea of explosions capable of putting radiocarbon into every person, plant and animal on Earth made vivid to him a whole new level of destruction. When the producers of Big Pacific invited him to choose an expedition for use in the documentary, he knew exactly where he wanted to go.
“I’ve been talking to people to get to Bikini for years and years,” he says. “I thought it would be a good lesson in what the ocean is capable of in terms of recovery. How does it grow back from this most devastating thing ever done?”