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What’s All This About Canaries and Coal Mines?

I recently ran across a Twitter post that said something like this:

Lake Mead’s record low is “canary in coal mine” for 30M people West who depend on #CORiver water for drinking 

So I started to wonder a bit about this often-used metaphor: “the canary in the coal mine.”

To refresh your memory, the phrase comes from the practice, dating to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, of coal miners taking canaries down into the mine with them.  Before the advent of modern ventilation systems, bad air was a serious threat to coal miners’ safety.  When the canaries stopped singing, that was a signal that something was wrong with the air and that the miners should get to the surface immediately.

They probably took the canary with them, don’t you think?

So “canary in the coal mine” has become a figure of speech to represent a fairly complex, but important, set of facts: when one indicator (the canary) demonstrates adverse reactions (singing stops) that shows that conditions are worsening in the affected environment (the mine) and that something needs to be done to protect health and safety (get out of the mine).

If the planet is our “mine” in this figure of speech, then there is no “getting out of the mine;” there’s not another planet that we can go to (that we know of).  So the phrase enjoins us to take some other corrective action, usually one that is either self-evident to the readers in question or one that is the subject of the rest of the article, blog post or what have you.

The question I want to pose, and enlist discussion about, is this:  what might “the canary in the coal mine” mean when applied to the Mississippi River, in whole or in part? You can pick your spot, your reach, whatever, or the whole river.  What should we be watching/listening to by way of a “canary” and what adverse conditions might the canary be warning us about?  What actions should be taken in response to this warning?

As they say on talk radio (so I hear): All lines are open.  Let us know your thoughts!


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One Comment

  1. Colm BarryAugust 21, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Well, in the mines the danger came from the mine gases, predominantly methane that, once it reached a certain level, while not directly dangerous to humans (yet) because it would not suffocate them (at that early level at least), it would reach the level where it provided the “ideal” mixture with air to create a ferocious explosion if a spark (from a pick-axe hitting a stone or a real fire like a torch). The Blantyre explosion Britain is still in miners’ memory like in continental Europe the Thirty Years War. Until electric torches were introduced, miners had carbide or other lamps enclosed in a fine wire mesh as fascinatingly a flame behind a mesh would not ignite a gas outside that mesh (probably you may remember this from high school chemistry). (Still you’d need to get out of the mine if levels rose as any accidental spark could set off the methane explosion. Another gas these canaries might have reacted to is poisonous carbon monoxide which can under certain circumstances also form in a (coal) mining environment. Now back to the warning function of these “proxy gauges”: a mine is a relatively controlled environment. There are established levels of methane to oxygen that lead to explosive mixtures, whereas any concentration above or below these threshold would not ignite, at least not violently. So, effectively, the canary was a proxy for a very simple physical relationship! What irks me in the climate debate is that everything that swells or decreases (almost every parameter by now!) gets hooked onto this doomsday warning scenario. But when you look closer, you then find, often a few paragraphs down or not at all (but then somewhere in a more complete rendition of facts) that “this flood, this drought, this hurricane, this temperature … has not been seen sind [take your pick] the nineteen-twenties, 1890s, 1720s or whatever – but certainly at times where human intervention as per carbon dioxide emissions could not have played a role. This is getting tiring, low hurricane season, high hurricane season, floods, droughts, this or that migrating foreign plant, anything now is linked to CO2, CH4, human intervention in any case. This is the opposite of the clear-cut “canary in the coal-mine” case: had the canary stopped singing every so often or kept singing at times when gas levels were dangerously high, then either miners would have used another proxy or they would have abandoned mining. But they chose these birds for their reliability. Today, armchair philosophers look out for proxies in such unlikely and uncorroborated cases that the whole science behind it becomes more and more discredited. EVERY such gauge and proxy should come with a timeline of at least (!) three hundred years, say, back to about 1700. IF the river or lake was never so low in these three hundred years, yes, THEN we have a case for investigation, not even a sure sign yet. But anything else is not a canary but a “cloud cloud cuckoo”!

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