Debating Climate, Environment and Planetary evolution. Define your position. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD.)
(Format Updated 3/Oct/2014)
For one year already I have explored questions and answers throughout this blog as well as throughout several groups in Linkedin. When looking at the possible implications of human activity over the so called “climate change” I feel that there is one important step to take in order to make the most of the input generated in the debate and that is to define each one’s position. And that is what I will try to do in this post, to define my position on the debate about Climate, Environment and Planetary Evolution.
In one of my comments as part of a debate in the issue I made a simplistic observation:
“I am surprised by having the sense of that there is a lack of attention into how the development of the human specie is transforming the environment with an unknown impact over the forces and mechanisms driving the evolution of the global environment. But, might it be due to my limited perception of the whole debate?”
I guess I took a short cut to define a much more complex thought than that. So I want to clarify where I was coming from to say that.
I started to be involved in environmental studies and training back in 1995 when I began my university degree in Biology. This degree covered throughout 5 years annual modules such as Plant Biology, Biostatistics, Physical Chemistry, Geology, Biochemistry, Histology and cytology, Zoology, Cryptogams, Microbiology, Genetics, Plant physiology, Animal physiology, Phanerogams, Ecology, Edafology, Phytopathology, Evolutionary Genetics, Physical Geography, Ecology, Geobotany, Genetic improvement and Oceanography. This training provided the background to start understanding how all parts of the environment connect with each other (soil, atmosphere, light and heat (from our sun), water and living organisms). Since then I have come to adopt an enquiring mind settled in understanding, for any complex matter, how basic principles evolve to allow such complex matters to arise.
When we approach the topic of climate evolution in a planetary ecosystem, like earth, the bases for such debate should be set upon considering the stability of those principles which have created the system in itself. From an inorganic body driven by passive thermodynamic forces generating extreme and violent oscillations to a system where the oscillations are reduced to mild, allowing ecosystems to develop, settle and evolve.
The first environment stable enough for life to evolve was water. And thereafter, our atmosphere.
The introduction of the biotic component in our planet is responsible for the active transformation suffered in the chemistry of our oceans and atmosphere and, therefore, our climate. Life started to have a major impact on the environment once photosynthetic organisms evolved. These organisms, blue-green algae (picture of stromatolite, which is the rock formed by these algae), fed off atmospheric carbon dioxide and converted much of it into marine sediments consisting of the shells of sea creatures. Throughout photosynthetic forms of life. While photosynthetic life reduced the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, it also started to produce oxygen. Once oxygen had been produced, ultraviolet light split the molecules, producing the ozone UV shield as a by-product. Only at this point did life move out of the oceans and respiration evolved.
The contribution of the development of life over land increased the synergistic connections between Biota, the Earth’s Energy Budget and Climate. The expansion of diverse types of adapted ecosystems around the planet was not random and, the species in each ecosystem were part of a interconnected global system capable of absorbing perturbations derived from oscillations due to rotation, translation, tilt, solar activity, and climatic events. Those oscillations have been always there and the ecosystems developed to absorb them.
The latest in our planetary evolution time line is the incorporation of human development. We arrived in a state of self-sustained ecosystems, with capability to recover, actively (storing energy throughout photosynthesis), from naturally induced thermodynamic passive fluctuations. When we look at the actual state of those ecosystems and the mechanisms of resilience which made our global system stable enough for life to create a state of equilibrium I wonder, are we exploring all the questions? Are we identifying and/or giving the right weight to the right questions?
So, in order to confront such a complex subject as it is to understand planetary evolution under anthropogenic pressure I just want to begin by exploring the state of consensus about which are the questions (few at the time) considered relevant to keep in mind as part of the debate.
Two major components are working side by side in our planet. Passive mechanisms driven by thermodynamic forces transferring energy between components of the ecosystem and, Active processes absorbing, transforming and storing energy throughout biochemical processes. Consequently, two postures rise in the debate from these two mechanisms.
Are thermodynamics defining the state which allow life to evolve in a changing climate? or, Are biotic systems which develop against thermodynamic fluctuations taming the weather?
At this point is where my initial comment comes into place. I am surprised by having the sense of that there is a given protagonism to thermodynamic properties of a single element (CO2) at the expense of lacking attention into how the development of the human specie is transforming the environment with an unknown impact over the forces and mechanisms driving the evolution of the global environment.
From an environmental point of view I understand that any ecosystem has a limited capacity to absorb perturbations. Transforming the environment triggers an impact not only over what the new environment produces, but also, over the capacity for the environment to absorb perturbations (resilience).
So, how much “instability” either triggered by changes in Solar radiation, Planetary positioning, Oceanic circulation and Atmospheric composition is being absorbed by our functional global environment?
how much transformation can absorb our environment before it gets overwhelmed-dysfunctional (overstretch) allowing magnifying factors to stretch the extremes in naturally induced oscillations either triggered by changes in Solar radiation, Planetary positioning, Oceanic circulation and Atmospheric composition?
Through the time line occupied by man, among all the forces interacting with our environment, only those naturally induced behave drawing patterns describing pendulum like oscillations in their magnitude. However, the pressure enforced over the environment by human development is constant and increasing.
In a mathematical representation of all the forces interacting with our environment anthropogenic transformation might be the only constant among all the variables. Accordingly, considering time, and without a natural variable suddenly adopting an overwhelming magnitude, makes this constant force the one setting the direction in the evolution of the whole system. That is because time has a bipolar repercussion in the magnitude of naturally induced variables such as Solar activity, tilt, PDO, (positive in one phase of the oscillation and negative in the other phase, that’s what makes them variables) meanwhile, the transformation of the environment constantly accumulates, always in the same direction over time.
Taking past periods of time as reference to define today’s environmental behaviour, like the Holocene, implies to assume that time has played a neutral factor in the development of the environment and its behaviour absorbing perturbations. Accordingly, the behaviour of our environment and the forces involved have oscillated pivoting around a neutral point of equilibrium under repeated patterns of change. Deviations from the neutral (or equilibrium) zone are understood as the consequence of extreme variations in one or more natural variables being the event independent from time. Accordingly, because it is assumed that naturally induced extreme oscillations are not the result of an accumulation in the dominant directionality of a force but as part of a cycle. However, when it is incorporated an unidirectional constant force over time, as it is environmental transformation, the pivoting point defining equilibrium in the repercussion from natural oscillations risks to get displaced unidirectionally over time.
Under similar extreme magnitudes of oscillation given for a natural variable, as it could be Solar minima in the Holocene and at the present, time makes all the difference. The type of repercussion that we might identify in our system from facing natural induced oscillations with or without an environment with the capacity to absorb perturbations and regenerate itself is a question of uncertainty. However, under my point of view, the level of uncertainty is linked with the role played by the impact that the development of the Human species throughout time has over the capacity of the environment to maintain its functionality.
How is the global earth system changing?
Earth is currently in a period of warming. Over the last century, Earth’s average temperature rose about 1.1°F (0.6°C). In the last two decades, the rate of our world’s warming accelerated and scientists predict that the globe will continue to warm over the course of the 21st century. Is this warming trend a reason for concern? After all, our world has witnessed extreme warm periods before, such as during the time of the dinosaurs. Earth has also seen numerous ice ages on roughly 11,000-year cycles for at least the last million years. So, change is perhaps the only constant in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history.
Scientists note that there are two new and different twists to today’s changing climate: (1) The globe is warming at a faster rate than it ever has before; and (2) Humans are the main reason Earth is warming. Since the industrial revolution, which began in the mid-1800s, humans have attained the magnitude of a geological force in terms of our ability to change Earth’s environment and impact its climate system.
Since 1900, human population doubled and then doubled again. Today more than 6.5 billion people inhabit our world. By burning increasing amounts of coal and oil, we drove up carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by 30 percent. Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas” that traps warmth near the surface.
Humans are also affecting Earth’s climate system in other ways. For example, we transformed roughly 40 percent of Earth’s habitable land surface to make way for our crop fields, cities, roads, livestock pastures, etc. We also released particulate pollution (called “aerosols”) into the atmosphere. Changing the surface and introducing aerosols into the atmosphere can both increase and reduce cloud cover. Thus, in addition to driving up average global temperature, humans are also influencing rainfall and drought patterns around the world. While scientists have solid evidence of such human influence, more data and research are needed to better understand and quantify our impact on our world’s climate system.
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