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Seeing Beyond

Seeing Beyond

by L. G. Cullens

In one of Garrison Keillor's monologues he set the scene in saying, "The old men sit around talking about the weather, and the old women sit around talking about the old men." Nowadays most age groups would more likely be skipping around Facebook, but it's the same distracted awareness.

There's nothing wrong with distracted awareness, but the point I'm getting to is that seeing beyond such can be an exciting and beneficial learning experience. Let's take the mundane subject of weather for example. Have you ever looked at it terms of being vital to our very existence?

Basically, weather is the result of ocean currents distributing heat from our sun around the world. These currents have their origin in the frigid waters around Antarctica. That may seem a bit contradictory, but it's in the violent ocean flows around Antarctica that the currents are generated, which pick up warmer water as they circle through the oceans. A driving force is wind, caused primarily by differences in atmosphere and planet rotation, which moves warm, moist air from the tropics down to collide with freezing air over the South Pole, maintaining a massive storm system there. Like an unending hurricane with a 4,000 mile diameter, this polar jet stream drives the ocean circulation around Antarctica. Think of it like the elusive perpetual motion concept, with wind and water in tandem protecting the Earth from excessive abrupt swings in overall weather by distributing differences. The positive consequence of this phenomenon is a habitat in which life as we know it has evolved.

Water and wind also play a vital role in distributing life sustaining nutrients. Beneath the sea floor, forces inside the Earth cause violent up-swellings through the crust. Where molten rock meets cold deep ocean water, the dense salty water dissolves rock, freeing minerals containing sulfur and iron which are essential to life as we know it. These nutrients not only foster thriving colonies of life at deep sea vents, but over thousands of years are circulated through the oceans of the world, ultimately rising to the surface and contributing to an amazing explosion of life. Phytoplankton absorb these nutrients and multiply rapidly to almost 50 billion tons of biomass each year, which is the base of the food chain for marine life. Phytoplankton that aren't eaten die and sink back to the floor of the ocean to remain for thousands of years.

Underlining the aspect of Nature's time scale, another example of weather playing a role in nutrient distribution is the dependance of the Amazon rainforest on the Sahara. There's a depression in the Sahara (the Bodélé Depression) which 6,000 years ago was the world's largest fresh water lake. The sediment of this ancient 24,000 square mile lake bed is the remains of plankton (diatomite), a rich source of phosphorous needed by all living things. As much as 40 million tons of sediment dust is transported annually on prevailing winds across the Atlantic to the Amazon rainforests. There, water droplets form on the dust particles, and the resulting rain delivers needed phosphate to the forest soil below.

No doubt you know the Amazon rainforest is a key link in Earth's oxygen supply, but it might surprise you to learn that it's a net-zero user of the oxygen it produces. Again we return to water, in that the Amazon rains wash nutrient rich sediment out to the Amazon delta where microscopic plankton thrive on the nutrients. As these plankton blooms spread farther out to sea, some of these tiny organisms act like plants in absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Covering up to 25,000 square miles, these plankton blooms are responsible for over half the oxygen we breathe.

Another benefit of weather is storm clouds that around the world produce on average forty lightning strikes every second of every day. The value in this is that the electricity breaks apart molecules of nitrogen contained in the air, which for the most part reconnect with oxygen creating a vital nutrient called nitrate. Nitrates are of course absorbed by plants, and when the plants are eaten the nitrates are available to other life forms like ourselves. Lightning also benefits life in starting forest and grass fires. Fire is a decomposer that unlocks nutrients needed for new life — nutrients that would otherwise be locked up for decades.

Even rotation of the Earth's core is a benefit in generating the magnetosphere, which deflects much of the higher energy particle radiation from the Sun that could endanger life. There are also inner magnetic fields which steer radiation breaking through the magnetosphere down towards the poles. This you've at least seen images of, as the visible effect is the Northern and Southern Lights.

So far, we've touched on how natural forces assist life sustaining processes, but even more intricate interconnectedness is to be found sustaining life in the diversity of biotic communities. Focusing in on biomes and localized ecosystems, we see how continuity of life is achieved through niche filling and balancing biotic interactions, though we're far from understanding all the details.

An example of this intricate dance of life is the seasonal rainforest on the west coast of Canada. Some of the pivotal niche roles are salmon returning to their spawning grounds; large predators such as Grizzly Bears feasting on the salmon; a dizzying array of scavengers, down to fly larvae, feeding on what the larger predators leave in their gluttonous haste; banana slugs decomposing and distributing the waste, and distributing fungi; flying squirrels, fond of truffles, distributing fungi; and fungi together with microorganisms finishing the decomposition to enrich the soil. This renews primary production which includes grasses and berries the Grizzly Bears feed on between salmon runs, and the cycle is completed with rain washing nutrients back out to sea where in the ocean food chain the salmon thrive and once again return to their spawning grounds. The balancing process for continuity of life here is primarily achieved with biodiversity, augmented by evolution's adaptive versatility.

Complex interrelationships exist in and between all ecosystems and biomes, and as life forms and habitats change over the course of time the effects cascade far and wide in further changes. To get a mental handle on such, think about what would happen to our food supply if pollinators disappear.

The human species' success, over a blink of an eye existence in geological time, has resulted in widespread activity. Today our presence can be seen across 80 percent of the landmass, and we are significantly affecting many of the natural cycles that govern our planet. We have faced looming food crisis time and again, which each time our technological innovations have overcome, allowing us to continue to thrive. Unfortunately though, we're finding emerging hurdles ever more difficult, because the Earth is a closed system and we're struggling against natural processes we're but a part of.

This isn't a condemnation of human activity, as all life is instilled with basic drives to not only survive but thrive. We're all part of Nature's fluid web-of-life, sharing degrees of genes and basic inherent behavioral traits. For example, wine grapes share 24% of our genes, honey-bees 44%, chickens 65%, and mice 88%. On the face of it one sees distinctions between life forms, but all life is constructed from the same building blocks, taking varied evolutionary forms to fill niches for efficiency in continuing life.

Rather, this is a celebration of life. From what we know of the history of life on Earth, regardless of changes wrought life in some form will continue. The universe is an incubator of life, being as all physical substance is at its roots stardust. So the next time you look up at the stars, think of the universe as a living thing, and celebrate your existence in the grand scheme.

There is no The End.

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