Virginia is for Oyster Lovers

“Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” Thus, Shakespeare gave us a new idiom in the Merry Wives of Windsor repeated ever since, and Oscar Wilde wielded it with customary wit: “The world was my oyster, but I took the wrong fork.”

It means a person expects to avoid adversity and find opportunity, like the discovery of a precious pearl. But if you asked an oyster it wouldn’t sound optimistic. Our excessive love kills them, and few cared about the relentless harvest until recently. In the poem recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Alice felt sorry for oysters as the Walrus and Carpenter gobbled them on the beach.

Had we been aboard the shallop steered by the first English explorers of the Chesapeake Bay in Shakespeare’s day we would have been gobsmacked by an abundance of oysters, some as large as dinner plates and forming reefs grown close to the surface.  In 1701, a foreign visitor wrote in astonishment: “whole banks … ships must avoid them … four times as large (as English oysters) … I often cut them in two to put them in my mouth.”

The Bay was drastically impoverished by dredging its bed barren in the 19th century Oyster Rush.  The local economy collapsed and watermen switched to crabbing to make a living. The crash drastically impacted other fauna and flora since the remaining 2% of original numbers now took a year to filter the entire Bay which used to be achieved in a week. It is a classic example of the folly of free-for-all harvesting of a seemingly inexhaustible natural resource. Oyster beds are now making a slow recovery against a tide of agricultural effluent and disease, but helped by volunteers for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and less harvesting pressure as oysters are cultured commercially.

If they are on your menu today, imagine the same shells on your plate again. The suggestion is ridiculous, but the point is that some restaurants in our region recycle shells for building wild oyster beds and embedding in artificial reefs. At one time, they were used as lime for mortar and roads, but when that became redundant they were dumped in landfills, so the recycling program is positive in every way.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay
Oysters shells curing in the sun

Shells are trucked to a depot in Maryland or the Virginia Institute of Marine Science beside the York River. A volunteer tips them on a hopper for conveyance through a tumble washer and bagging to cure in the sun for a year, eliminating the last traces of condiments from your meal. The happy, hot and sweaty team beside the river is, alas, not reassembling this year because of the coronavirus contagion.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay
Oyster gardening

Cured shells are loaded in tanks of brackish water to which larvae (‘spat’) are introduced from external suppliers. The spat can attach to hard surfaces like stone or concrete, but they prefer old shells, like the reefs of old. Young oysters are then dropped in sanctuary areas of the Bay or its creeks and rivers or oyster gardeners raise them for a year in cages where they grow faster and are protected before reaching their final destination. The goal is to deposit 10 billion oysters by 2025, an effort requiring over 21,000 hours of volunteer time.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay
Oyster lovers beside the York River

Not only will future diners and watermen benefit but the whole ecosystem. It is a story of a keystone species. In purifying 50 gallons of water a day, each oyster reduces dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus and, hence, the risk of dead zones from algal blooms. Their colonies provide important habitat for fish and crabs too. The early explorers adopted the Algonquin name for Chesapeake, meaning great shellfish bay,  and perhaps one day it will be apt again.

If Snow be Black

After last week’s monster storm that left Eastern USA snow white, the snowbanks slowly melted into pools and streams. But what if snow were black? The Bard liked nature the way he saw it, but he loved to mock our conventional sense of color.Sonnet #130, ver#2

Casting back to Physics 101, I remember learning how experience tidily lines up alongside theory. Dark surfaces feel hotter than light ones as they don’t release energy so efficiently, and dark roofs and asphalt are heat sinks making urban centers several degrees warmer than outlying countryside. There is little advantage in a black roof for absorbing heat when it is snow-covered, but a white roof in summer can significantly reduce AC bills by reflecting the sun’s rays.

Standard white paint reflects 80% of solar radiation, whereas standard black has only 5% reflectivity. The thermal emissivity of asphalt and snow are similar, but the solar reflectance index from combining reflectivity and emissivity is theoretically 100 for white versus 0 for black. Some difference!

Snow be black
Snow be black

Instead of sprinkling salt to lower the freezing point of your icy path, test whether powdered black carbon (soot) melts ice faster by absorbing heat than leaving it untreated. Almost unnoticeable traces of black carbon can have noticeable effects. Consider the melting of glaciers, which started accelerating in the Alps in the second half of the 19th Century. This was originally blamed on climate change (temperature and precipitation), but a recent model from measuring ice cores predicts a better fit to the fallout of black carbon in the Industrial Age. The Alps are encircled by cities that industrialized early and depended on burning dirty coal.

Weathermen who speak of ‘black ice’ know that it is, strictly speaking, science fiction. It’s very hard to imagine how atomic bonds would be bent to abolish the reflective properties of ice, at least in the universe we know. But who knows? Nature looks stranger every day we look closer. Black holes look black because gravity captures light from escaping. Both black coal and transparent diamonds are from carbon, not paradoxical but a discovery that would have humored Shakespeare.

If snow was not white, our world would be hotter, have higher sea levels, different fauna and flora, and no snowmen on Christmas cards. According to that incurable optimist, Dr. Pangloss, “It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end (Trans. Candide). But Tom Torrance, a theologian famous for embracing Carl Barth and Niels Bohr, once reminded me that we live a contingent universe, and ought to be thankful for this one and not to be born somewhere much stranger in the multiverse. Yes, let snow be white.

Next Post: Dees Bones Gonna Walka Round