Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
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Page added on August 10, 2012
I mourn for the dodo, poor fat flightless bird, extinct since the eighteenth century. I grieve for the great auk, virtually wiped out by zealous Viking huntsmen a thousand years ago and finished off by hungry Greenlanders around 1760. I think the world would be more interesting if such extinct creatures as the moa, the giant ground sloth, the passenger pigeon, and the quagga still moved among us. It surely would be a lively place if we had a few tyrannosaurs or brontosaurs on hand. (Though not in my neighborhood, please.) And I’d find it great fun to watch one of those PBS nature documentaries showing the migratory habits of the woolly mammoth. They’re all gone, though, along with the speckled cormorant, Steller’s sea cow, the Hispaniola hutia, the aurochs, the Irish elk, and all too many other species.
But now comes word that it isn’t just wildlife that can go extinct. The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.
Running out of oil, yes. We’ve all been concerned about that for many years and everyone anticipates a time when the world’s underground petroleum reserves will have been pumped dry. But oil is just an organic substance that was created by natural biological processes; we know that we have a lot of it, but we’re using it up very rapidly, no more is being created, and someday it’ll be gone. The disappearance of elements, though—that’s a different matter. I was taught long ago that the ninety-two elements found in nature are the essential building blocks of the universe. Take one away—or three, or six—and won’t the essential structure of things suffer a potent blow? Somehow I feel that there’s a powerful difference between running out of oil, or killing off all the dodos, and having elements go extinct.