Follow the guano: Professor tracks unlikely source to unlock Pacific environmental history

Tue, 05/20/2014

Contact

George Diepenbrock
KU News Service
785-864-8853

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas researcher has traced an unlikely source at the root of helping open up the vast Pacific Ocean to exploitation in the modern age: guano.

That’s right. There’s much more than it would seem to bird excrement, as its nitrogen, phosphates and other contents helped play a crucial role in many aspects of products of the Industrial Age. Gregory Cushman, associate professor of international environmental history, followed the droppings of sea birds in his book "Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History," which has been reviewed in the journal Science and The Times Literary Supplement, where it was on the cover of the London publication in December.

“The idea that a thing such as guano could be in the mix of such a tremendously important moment in world history makes us think about the way we interact with the world,” Cushman said.

The book details how bird guano was mined for fertilizer in Latin American countries, like Peru, and a number of Pacific Islands beginning in the 1800s. It played a pivotal role in the agricultural and economic development of a number of First World countries.

“It tells us quite a lot about the historical circumstances that have enabled us to grow to become so numerous as a species,” Cushman said. “Fertilizer used to produce food and meat is fundamental to being able to support large populations of people.”

Guano’s significance extended beyond use for fertilizer because nitrates shipped along with it from the adjacent coast were critical catalysts for production of sulfuric and nitric acid that helped make production of goods like glass, bleach, dyes, color and glazes more numerous and inexpensive.

“The opening of the natural world in the Pacific exploration made a lot of the basic things we associate with modern industrialization possible,” he said.

Because of the Pacific Basin’s vastness — “so much water and so many islands” — its environmental history has eluded scholars, largely until the past 18 months, Cushman said.

“This has been sort of a black hole in part of world history, and a number of us have noticed this to an extent independently,” he said.

By following the birds and guano trade in the Pacific region, Cushman was able to delve into the environmental history of South American countries like Peru and Chile, plus East Asia and Oceania. Cushman’s environmental research also focuses on the effects of natural disasters and climatic trends, such as the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, and earthquakes similar to the large tremors that shook parts of Chile in early April. The history of guano also has a connection to human understanding of these types of disasters.

Scientists in the 1920s and 1940s studying birds in the Peruvian region watched El Niño wreak havoc with massive rainstorms and disappearance of fish stocks. They reported their findings about the disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific at scientific meetings in Japan and Indonesia.

“The fact that we call the El Niño phenomenon ‘El Niño,’ a name indigenous to the coast of Peru, is directly related to the importance of the guano industry,” Cushman said.

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake in 1868 caused a tsunami — comparable to the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster — recorded as far away in Hawaii, New Zealand and Japan. The 1868 disaster destroyed facilities where nitrates were produced and threw a wrinkle into the global market.

“The last time a quake of this magnitude struck the Atacama Desert region was smack in the middle of the guano and nitrates boom,” Cushman said. 

Another earthquake in 1877 had a similar effect on nitrate futures and played a role in sparking the War of the Pacific from 1879 to 1884 pitting Peru and Bolivia against Chile.

The earthquakes in April of this year in Chile are a reminder of the environmental volatility of the region, although damage from the recent earthquakes was somewhat mitigated. Thankfully, Cushman said, the recent Chile earthquakes did not cause a tsunami, which typically creates worse effects as far as damage and casualties.

“I think this is really good evidence that our continued experience with these massive earthquakes is having an impact on governmental policy and building practices,” he said. “Even though we continue to build things in harm's way, we’re doing so in a way that they are not as vulnerable as they have been in the past.”

Cushman, who was featured in a 2010 episode of the Dutch Radio and Television series “Beagle: In Darwin’s Wake” about environmental issues in Latin America and the Pacific Basin, said the choice to use guano as the vehicle to expand on environmental history of the Pacific Ocean has likely led to much of the international attention to his book.

“It’s an oddity of history. It’s funny,” he said. “But it’s also the sense that excrement is a central part of our existence. One of the things that’s amazing about this, it’s so connected with our everyday lives.”

Cambridge University Press has recently released “Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World” in a paperback edition.



KU in the news
Christian Science MonitorThu, 08/21/2014
Columbia Journalism ReviewThu, 08/21/2014
Can a new species of frog have a doppelgänger? KU researchers say yes. Learn more about the discovery here: http://bit.ly/XHT3H3 Tags: #KUdiscoveries #KUresearch #KUstudents #Frog #LookAlike

Poet offers insights to Jayhawk experience through wordplay "Welcome to KU. Where questions rest, in stacks of answers from the past. …" Listen to Topher Enneking, a spoken word poet and former KU football player, as he weaves the experience of KU and its traditions through this storytelling and wordplay performance. Learn more about KU traditions at http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/. Welcome to KU. Where questions rest in stacks of answers from the past. Where dreams crawl out of bed And learn to walk Uphill both ways. Where freshmen stand on stilts And hang from the rafters, While the wheat waves In a fieldhouse Where the Phog rolls in Helping us to see Through the past into the future. Haunting hosts giving handouts in a heritage Too heavy to grasp til you add to it. So it may be born anew, Allowing our boots to stand in the ash of oppression’s hate But shine bright as the sun While war cries of warriors past Ring in our ears long after their battles are won. Memorials telling time, “you don’t have to stand still.” Because the top of the world Is just up that Hill. Where our natural history is an awe-struck echo Of world’s fair and equal Past, present and future, prelude and sequel. Where our flags fly above planes. Where we build in chalks that can’t be erased. Stone edifices made to last So you would walk Past their doors, down their halls And let your voice fill their room. Because only in empty silence can destruction loom. So stand tall. Wrap your arms around this crowd Sing our alma mater and sing it out loud. Let your voice sing in chorus and reach other nations Beckoning new Jayhawks to spark new collaborations Because you are the mortar that will hold these walls upright. Your future Your dreams are why Jayhawks did fight For the tradition before you Was merely prelude For what will come next now that you’re at KU.


One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
1 of 9 public universities with outstanding study abroad programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
—ALA
$260.5 million in externally funded research expenditures
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times