Award-winning author Rachel Carson (1907–1964) was one of the greatest American natural history writers of the twentieth century. Her books include Under the Sea Wind,The Sense of Wonder, and The Sea Around Us. Decades after Carson published her first book and brought environmentalism and conservation to the forefront of the cultural conversation, readers can access three of her seminal works in the environmentally friendly e-format for the first time.
Today, the Green Blog Network has the privilege of sharing with readers some of Carson's own words. Rachel Carson wrote this preface fifty years ago for the rerelease of The Sea Around Us, which combines detailed fieldwork and inspiring prose to reveal a deep understanding of the earth’s most precious, mysterious resource—the ocean.
...And yet the actual transport of radioactive elements by the sea itself is only part of the problem. The concentration and distribution of radioisotopes by marine life may possibly have even greater importance from the standpoint of human hazard. It is known that plants and animals of the sea pick up and concentrate radiochemicals, but only vague information now exists as to details of the process. The minute life of the sea depends for its existence on the minerals in the water. If the normal supply of these is low, the organisms will utilize instead the radioisotope of the needed element if it is present, sometimes concentrating it as much as a million times beyond its abundance in sea water. What happens then to the careful calculation of a “maximum permissible level”? For the tiny organisms are eaten by larger ones and so on up the food chain to man. By such a process tuna over an area of a million square miles surrounding the Bikini bomb test developed a degree of radioactivity enormously higher than that of the sea water. By their movements and migrations, marine creatures further upset the convenient theory that radioactive wastes remain in the area where they are deposited. The smaller organisms regularly make extensive vertical movements upward toward the surface of the sea at night, downward to great depths by day. And with them goes whatever radioactivity may be adhering to them or may have become incorporated into their bodies. The larger fauna, like fishes, seals, and whales, may migrate over enormous distances, again aiding in spreading and distributing the radioactive elements deposited at sea. The problem, then, is far more complex and far more hazardous than has been admitted. Even in the comparatively short time since disposal began, research has shown that some of the assumptions on which it was based were dangerously inaccurate. The truth is that disposal has proceeded far more rapidly than our knowledge justifies. To dispose first and investigate later is an invitation to disaster, for once radioactive elements have been deposited at sea they are irretrievable. The mistakes that are made now are made for all time. It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. RACHEL CARSON Silver Spring, Maryland October 1960 Read the rest of The Sea Around Us, and learn more about Rachel Carson.