Normally watching CSPAN is about as exciting as watching paint dry. This morning I was flipping through the channels when I cam across CSPAN2 and they were showing a Book TV segment. So I lingered a little longer than I normally do, and I’m glad I did. They had author Thomas Hager talking about his newly released book The Alchemy of Air. I haven’t been captivated by an author this much since hearing Michael Pollan talk about his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Since I came in on the middle of the talk I wasn’t quite sure what the subject was but it was intriguing. In the late 1800’s there was this guy named Cook who was predicting humans would starve in 1930. It was because the world was running out of nitrogen or rather the population would soon bump into the limits of the biosphere. The thing was he was absolutely right. Why didn’t this happen?

Cook said that we’d starve unless scientists came up with a way of getting nitrogen out of the air which is needed as fertilizer. Well to make a long story short Haber invented this process to pull nitrogen out of the air to make ammonia and it was used to make fertilizer, gunpowder, and TNT. One of the downsides of this process was that it allowed people to wage even more destructive wars.

Hager also said something that was fascinating, or rather disturbing once I understood the implications. Humans have doubled the amount of fixed nitrogen in the Earth’s biosphere in the last 70 years. We do not know the full impact of this yet. He also said half the nitrogen fixed ends up in the air and water and does not become food. We can already see one of the major impacts due to all this runoff, dead zones. There are over a hundred dead zones in the oceans around the world. Ironically enough the dead zone created by the Mississipi in the Gulf of Mexico is the size of New Jersey.

I knew that fertilizer runoff was a problem but I didn’t fully appreciate how we got her. I plan to read Hager’s book. I’ll try to get it from the library first, but if that fails I’ll buy a copy. I strongly suspect that when I start arguing with global warming deniers about dead zones they’ll also deny that nitrogen is a problem too. We are changing the chemistry of the ocean. It becomes more acidic due to the carbon dioxide it absorbs and it creates algal blooms that create dead zones.