6.1 The Earth’s Story


Who or what is the Earth anyway? Is the Earth just a big lump of rock with useful resources on it, a "Blue Marble" as seen from outer space[2]? Or is the Earth a more complex material object governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, but still insentient? Or is the Earth also an intelligent, sentient being endowed with some independent agency executed through Life, though confined to a prescribed orbit around the sun, as in James Lovelock's "Gaia" model[3] and in the "Mother Earth" formulation embraced by most Eastern and indigenous wisdom traditions?

If our story is that the Earth is just a big blue marble, then of course, we would deny that the Earth could possibly be reacting to human activities with climate change, wildfires, droughts, floods, famines, ice melts and so forth. After all, we can scratch up a marble, throw it around and it never retaliates. Those who subscribe to such a story would be immune to scientific arguments about how physics, chemistry, geology and paleontology are all pointing to human activities causing climate change and environmental degradations on Earth. They would prefer to think that the sun, cosmic rays and other celestial forces directly cause any changes in the Earth’s climate. As the Fox News TV personality, Bill O'Reilly, said[4],

"Humans can't change the Earth's climate! Only God changes the Earth's climate!"

That ends any debate on climate change with those who subscribe to that view!

But if our story were that the Earth is a more complex material object governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, but nothing more, then we would deny that Life could possibly be involved in regulating the Earth's climate. True, trees absorb solar energy and transpire water through their leaves so that forests as a whole act like a green land surface with an evaporation channel for ground moisture. Climate models, or rather Global Circulation Models (GCM), can and do easily account for these physical characteristics, but that's where they stop. The statistician, George Box, said that,

"All models are wrong. But some are useful."

As such, GCMs are indeed wrong, but they are undoubtedly useful. Unfortunately, climate scientists are particularly sensitive to any suggestion that their GCMs are wrong. They have been hounded on every little discrepancy in their scientific work and any such suggestion would be pounced upon by contrarians eager to promote fossil fuel interests[5]. Therefore, it was a triumph of academic integrity and the scientific method for the seminal paper on the Biotic Pump theory to be published in the Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry Journal of the European Geosciences Union[6]. It took two years of reviewing and revising, but it finally got published.

As the principal authors of the paper, Dr. Anastassia Makarieva and Prof. Viktor Gorshkov, describe it, the standard atmospheric GCMs used in climate modeling fail to account for half the rainfall over the Amazon forest. In the GCMs, the rainfall over the Amazon decreases linearly with distance from the ocean, whereas in reality, the rainfall over the Amazon is fairly constant and independent of this distance. One would think that is such a glaring discrepancy that would cause scientific heads to get scratched! But none of the GCMs based on physics and chemistry could account for that discrepancy. Apparently, we need biology to account for that!

In the standard GCMs, the total precipitation that falls on a region is determined by wind patterns, which are strictly due to temperature differentials. In the standard equation of eco-hydrology,

P = E+R,

where P is the precipitation, E is the evaporation and R is the runoff, it is assumed that when forests are cut down, the evaporation, E, declines and most of the precipitation, P, is available as runoff, R, which can then be dammed and used for human consumption. That is, the less forests there are the better it is for fresh water availability for humans!

But that is so contrary to common sense! If we ask any villager in India, she would tell us that when the forests are cut down, the rainfall decreases, water sources dry up and desertification begins. The total precipitation, P, tends towards zero and our grand plans to dam the runoff for human use come to naught. Therefore, something is amiss in the standard GCMs.

That something is filled in by the Biotic Pump theory.

In the Biotic Pump theory, forests also act to create their own rainfall. Along with the transpiration of water, forests emit microorganisms that become the nuclei for raindrop formation. As raindrops form above the forest, atmospheric pressure drops above the forest and a pressure gradient is created in the lower atmosphere, which causes moist air from above the ocean to be drawn towards the forest, and an atmospheric circulation ensues. Conversely, as forests are cut down, there would be more raindrop formation above the ocean than above land, which would cause the pressure gradient to reverse and result in moisture from land to be drawn over the ocean, leading to desertification. It is this atmospheric circulation due to Life that is completely missing in any climate model today. This atmospheric circulation due to Life is necessary to explain the rainfall over the Amazon. It also provides a plausible explanation for the steady expansion of the Sahara desert over the past 10,000 years.

But this means that the Earth's climate is not just a function of physics and chemistry, but Life regulates it as well!

Here’s another situation where Life changes the environment to make it more hospitable for Life. In his engaging presentation at the 2009 AGU Annual Fall Meeting entitled, "The Biggest Control Knob: CO2 in Earth's Climate History,” Dr. Richard Alley, a Professor of Geosciences at Penn State University, described the CO2 rock weathering thermostat to explain how the Earth's climate is regulated by the CO2 level in the atmosphere[7]. The explanation is that of a purely chemical process involving volcanic activity and volcanic rocks that contain calcium and magnesium, which naturally absorb CO2 to become limestone or dolomite. If the surface temperature of the Earth increases, the chemical reactions absorbing CO2 increases and the atmospheric CO2 is drawn down reducing the greenhouse effect, thereby lowering the surface temperature. If the surface temperature of the Earth decreases, the CO2 draw down through rock weathering slows, building up the CO2 levels in the atmosphere as volcanoes belch the gas out, thereby increasing the temperature. The time constant of this CO2 rock-weathering thermostat is on the order of 500,000 years.

Enter Dr. Ronald Dorn, a Professor of Biosciences of Arizona State University, who over the past quarter century, along with his students, has been studying how ants, termites and tree roots affect this rock weathering process[8]. At eight test sites in Arizona and Texas, he showed that ants could accelerate the absorption of atmospheric CO2 by 335 times compared to the chemical rock weathering process alone. Ants or perhaps, the microbes that coexist with ants are powerful biotic agents for the thermal regulation of the planet, just as forests are powerful biotic agents for atmospheric circulation.

Thus, Life is an active participant in regulating the Earth's climate and surface temperature and thereby creating the environmental conditions that promote the well being of Life. That should not be surprising given that each of us is endowed with biological mechanisms for thermal regulation and healing in our respective bodies. It is only fitting that the Earth who spawned us all possesses similar biological mechanisms to create an environment hospitable for Life, on a large, macro scale!

Therefore the time has come for us to accept the views of many Eastern and indigenous cultures, which consider the Earth to be a conscious being in her own right. Said a Smohalla representative in response to European entreaties in the 1880s[9],

"You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother's hair."

In his formulation, Mother Earth is indeed a sentient being in her own right, and we are one of her numerous children! Such a sentient planet orbiting an ordinary star, the Sun, which is like 90% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, has now spawned a pesky, terra-forming, superlative tool-building species that overspreads the globe and has the capacity to cause a major extinction event all by itself! It is unimaginable that the evolutionary process that spawned the perfection of the forest at the SAI Sanctuary also contains within it a suicidal flaw in the natural selection of superlative tool-building abilities. In one of his many inspiring passages, Father Thomas Berry wrote[10],

"If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture."

Indeed, not only can we have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture, but we can also have confidence in the past and present as well!

[2] As popularized in the photograph snapped by Apollo 17 astronauts, http://go.nasa.gov/1N7w9hb

[3] Lovelock, J, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press, Nov 2000, ISBN-13: 978-0192862181, http://amzn.to/20h7coD

[4] Bill O’Reilly has opined on climate numerous times. Here’s a clip where he articulates this position: http://mm4a.org/22izKzH

[5] An archetypal event is the so-called “Climate Gate” scandal, which was debunked subsequently: http://bit.ly/1OTAoM2

[6] Makarieva, A. M., et al, “Precipitation on land versus distance from the ocean: Evidence for a forest pump of atmospheric moisture,” Ecol. Complexity, Volume 6, Issue 3, September 2009, Pages 302–307, doi:10.1016/j.ecocom.2008.11.004, 2009. http://bit.ly/240yl0a

[7] Alley, Richard, “The Biggest Control Knob,” AGU Plenary lecture, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RffPSrRpq_g
[8] Dorn, Ronald, “Ants as a powerful biotic agent of olivine and plagioclase dissolution,” Geology, 2014, doi:10.1130/G35825.1, http://bit.ly/256ZoJs

[9] Ward, R.C., “The Spirits Will Leave: Preventing the Desecration and Destruction of Native American Sacred Sites on Federal Land,” Ecology Law Quarterly, vol 19, issue 4, art 4, Sep 1992. http://bit.ly/27JxxRN

[10] Page 137 in Berry, Thomas, The Dream of the Earth, Counterpoint, Oct 2006, ISBN-13: 978-1578051359, http://amzn.to/240x0WZ