Greetings, readers! I hope this week’s article brings a bit less brain and a little more heart.
I hope I don’t appear as though I don’t care about the Monument fire and River Complex by writing this science column in a somewhat “ostrich with her head in the sand” manner. I care very much about the current events unfolding in these mountains. It’s all I think about, why I decided to speak up and write in the first place. My heart breaks for all those displaced, who have lost homes and are surviving the chaos of destruction and evacuation as best they can.
There is little more I can say beyond what has been written in the feature fire articles and the informative pieces offered by longstanding TC columnists. All I can add is that I am so sorry this is our shared reality and that there has been so much suffering. I’m inspired to see the way helpers spring forth from this community to care for their own. The fires of this season will not burn for eternity. The firefighters and residents of this county will do everything they can to see that these fires go cold. I hope this short article is a brief reprieve from pain.
Today we’ll review and recollect. We know Earth is a round planet, spinning on its axis, orbiting the sun. This means that sunlight reaches Earth’s surface at different angles: the equator receives direct sunlight over a smaller, more concentrated area, and the latitudes and poles receive light at lower angles that are less direct and allow the beams to spread over a larger geographic area. Here’s a helpful refresher: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effect_of_Sun_angle_on_climate. We have climate zones (tropical rainforests, mid-latitude deserts and grasslands, arctic tundra, polar ice caps) because of these variations in solar energy striking Earth’s surface.
We also know that materials can move from place to place (sphere to sphere) through chemical reactions or phase changes. Just as water moves between the sky and water bodies (atmosphere and hydrosphere), carbon moves between the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere by taking the form of CO2, methane, hydrocarbons, and carbonate rocks (limestone and marble). A tree or brick of coal becomes atmospheric CO2 through the chemical reaction of combustion, and CO2 becomes biomass (trees, calcium carbonate planktonic shells) via photosynthesis. In summary, energy and materials are constantly flowing from place to place around the planet in perpetuity, and at varying rates (days to hundreds of millions of years).
We also know Earth is a complex system with time lags (processes don’t happen instantaneously), non-linear (mostly exponential) relationships, and built-in feedback loops that can either amplify (increase) a change in the system, or dampen (decrease) a change in the system. We know from direct observation and from ancient climate records that Earth doesn’t usually react in a predictable, linear way. There are numerous examples of a forcing (a change in the system) going undetected for a good long while (the flat part of the exponential curve), but then suddenly manifesting in a rapid, lightning-fast flip into a new equilibrium (the steep, rocket-ship trajectory part of the exponential curve).
I grew up in New Hampshire. Before I was born, acid rain was falling from the sky and filling the lakes. Rather than having the fish die off in a gradual manner, with the death count increasing year after year, they survived for years with no apparent change in their population. Then, in the course of one summer, there was a massive fish die-off in the lakes that happened all at once, seemingly without warning. Once the waters were tested, scientists understood that the fish had been chronically poisoned, and then were pushed past the threshold of survival when the water became too acidic for sustained life and procreation.
We live on a miraculous, one-of-a-kind planet that is awesome and fearful in its complexity and interconnectedness. As John Muir once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” If we can better understand these nuances and intricate relationships, we can better care for and nurture this spectacular Earth. Agapé.