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The Pentagon’s Scary Plan to Militarize Ocean Life

Animals
The Pentagon’s Scary Plan to Militarize Ocean Life
A U.S. Navy marine mammal handler and a bottlenose dolphin who has been trained to detect explosives at a Naval base in California. Though DARPA has said it won't use intelligent mammals and endangered species for the project, the claim is suspect given the U.S. Navy's use of dolphins and sea lions to detect underwater mines. Lt. David Bennett / U.S. Navy

By Maia Danks

The U.S. military has plans to create genetically modified marine organisms that can be used as underwater spies for the military. Fantastic as this idea may seem, the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has actually launched a new program that aims to tap into the "natural sensing capabilities" of marine organisms, who are highly attuned to their surroundings, to track enemy traffic undersea.


The project out of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, called the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program hopes to use everything from bacteria to large fish to find underwater vehicles by recording the creatures' natural reactions to these vehicles and sending the data to an outside base.

A recent press release about the program said it would "study natural and modified organisms (emphasis added) to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles."

"Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone," the release said, explaining the program's reasoning. "Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains—tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark."

The program is currently seeking proposals that would help capture the responses of marine organisms—both natural and transgenic—to the presence of underwater vehicles, interpret those responses and relay them to a network of hardware devices.

It is unclear right now as to how this will happen. DARPA has stated that "intelligent mammals" and endangered species will not be used in the experiments or in the program itself, but it has been vague as to how it defines "intelligent mammals." Questions as to the involvement of dolphins and other marine mammals arise, particularly since the U.S. Navy, is notorious for holding nearly 100 dolphins captive in San Diego, conducting experiments on them and using them for military purposes.

Though the program states that if any modified organisms are used it would require "appropriate environmental safeguards to support future deployment," it is highly likely that a genetically modified marine organism released into the ocean will interbreed with an organism of the same (or similar) species whose genes hadn't been tinkered with. And as the animals breed with each other, they will cause more and more of their kind to adopt the genetically modified traits. With time, the entire ocean could be filled with GM creatures and that could lead to changes in marine ecosystems that we can't even begin to anticipate.

DARPA has said it would create and test modified species strictly in "contained, biosecure facilities." But as this VICE report points out, "to actually deploy modified species, the military would have to release them into the wild, where they could drive out, outeat, or outbreed unmodified species."

Another worry with genetically modified sea creatures is the likelihood that humans will consume them. With the amount of fishing and by-catch that currently happens around the world, it is inevitable that many people will end up consuming the GM animals. (While there has been no conclusive evidence linking GM food to negative health impacts, concerns remain that GMOs may cause yet unknown genetic changes, allergies or other serious harm to human health.)

These concerns apart, forcing these creatures to be spies for the U.S. military is inherently, morally wrong. No animal should be a tool for the military. Animals should not be treated as objects that can be altered and used for their natural gifts. They should be valued for what they are, and for being a part of ocean ecosystems.

It is clear that DARPA needs to stop this program. As the creators of the program, it has the ability to discontinue it and place its resources and abilities in more beneficial areas of technology. It needs to understand that the repercussions of a program like this will affect more than just the military; it will hurt the ocean, its creatures and the people who depend on it.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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