The Albatross

Literature embellishes the albatross with near-spiritual endowments. These magnificent wanderers fly near-effortlessly. For example, they completely circumnavigate Earth’s southern polar region without once touching land. Obviously, they must be energy efficient. Using some simple assumptions, we calculate that their lifetime energy consumption is about 3.3e+10Joules per bird. This is a great example of how energy flows through the ecosystem and sustainably supports life on Earth.

We can calculate lifetime energy consumption for people as well. Using assumptions that are similar to those for the albatross, we calculate that a typical, busy human would consume 40e+10Joules in a lifetime. But this is solely our biological energy consumption. Humans have learned to access and utilize energy stored in other forms. Adding these, the total consumption of energy for the lifetime of a person in Switzerland (a randomly chosen reference) becomes 1000e+10 Joules. Or, over a lifetime, a person consumes over 300 times the amount of energy than an albatross.

Let’s take a ‘bigger picture’ view of these calculations. The albatross has found an ecological niche that may enable it to survive for a very long time into the future if its sources of energy, the squid and fish, remain. Humans also have taken an ecological niche. But we are expanding into just about every other niche. “How so?” you ask. Well, we’ve subjected a half of Earth’s arable lands to agriculture. We’ve discovered and utilized many of Earth’s (finite) stores of energy. And our population continues to expand. The number of albatross decreases. Is this sustainable for a long time into the future?
Wangering albatross
By JJ Harrison ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0