This miniseries is dedicated to our planet earth, so we may better
appreciate how she lives and sustains all creatures large and small, that we
may learn to dance to the complex rhythms of her life music without stopping
her in her tracks.
Space scientist and inventor Jim Lovelock first proposed in the 1970s
that the entire earth is a self-organizing, self-regulating entity, rather like
an organism. He named the earth Gaia, after the Greek earth goddess.
The idea that Gaia is alive and has a life of her own immediately caught
fire. It inspired many earth scientists to look for the dynamic processes that
organize and regulate the currents of the earth, to make a congenial home for
all her inhabitants. These scientists are richly rewarded.
Records from ice and deep sea cores show detailed globally correlated
changes going back at least 800 000 years, leaving us in no doubt that the
earth behaves from moment to moment as one coherent whole, just like an
Not only can we can read Gaias life-history from her deep memory
stores, we can also tune in to her life-force pulsing as she is living
Gaia spinning in her perpetual dance around the sun, her mighty breath
tumbling from hot belly to the poles, swirling across the continents, bringing
welcome rain to forests, grasslands and crops, or torrential downpours, floods
and hurricanes. Vast slow vortices of water connect her oceans from the
furthest northern reaches to the southernmost haunts, from the shimmering sea
surfaces to the dark deep beds, distributing warmth and nutrients, sustaining
life with life.
Gaias breath is our breath, her water our water. Let Gaia live
that we may live.
Vast amounts of greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous
oxide - are released into the atmosphere as a result of clearing and burning
rainforests. In recent years, deforestation has contributed as much as 30
percent of all anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Tropical deforestation therefore contributes significantly to global warming
both through the release of stored carbon and through the destruction of one of
the Earths prime ways of absorbing excess atmospheric carbon.
Moreover, by acting as a heat pump that redistributes the
energy of sunlight from the equator to the temperate regions, tropical
rainforests have another vitally important role that has been largely ignored
by climatologists. Tropical rainforests, and particularly those of the Amazon
Basin, warm the temperate zones while cooling the tropics, and in the process,
regulate the flow of freshwater through the ecosystem, determining local and
regional rainfall patterns. Destroying the tropical rain forests will perturb
climate in ways every bit as powerfully as the addition of greenhouse gases.
Through evapotranspiration from the forest canopy, large amounts of
rain-water are returned to the atmosphere, generating clouds that reflect
sunlight back into the outer space, thus cooling the forested regions.
Transpiration draws water absorbed by the roots up through the entire plant,
releasing it into the atmosphere as water vapour from open stomata
or pores on the plant leaves. This process accounts for 60 per cent of the
humidity in the air over central Amazonia; evaporation from the surfaces of
leaves and stems of the vegetation accounts for the remaining 40 per cent. In
sharp contrast to forests in temperature regions, virtually no evaporation
occurs from Amazonian soils when supporting mature forest.
Evapotranspiration over Amazonas involves enormous amounts of solar
energy and, according to Brazilian climatologist, Luiz Carlos Molion, takes up
as much as 80 per cent of the energy of sunlight directed down over the
forests. The hot, humid air generated over the rainforest then rises rapidly
and develops into cumulo-nimbus thunder clouds that simultaneously water areas
further downwind and release the energy bound up in water vapour as
latent heat back into the atmosphere, so driving the great air
masses in their circulation patterns. The hydrological dynamics of
evapotranspiration fall apart when the rainforest is destroyed.
One study in Nigeria shows up the difference between the forest and a
clearing just 50 metres apart. The day-time temperature just above the soil in
the clearing was 5oC higher than in the forest, and the humidity
nearly halved. With the Amazon forest totally destroyed, evapotranspiration is
likely to fall to one half of its original value and precipitation down by as
much as 20 per cent.
Brazilian physicist, Eneas Salati has shown that up to 75 per cent of
all the water falling as rain over the Amazon is evaporated and transpired back
into the atmosphere, to fall again as the winds move from east to west. The
energy flow across the 5 million square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon
Basin is equivalent to 5 to 6 million atom bombs exploding every day, Salati
says. Clearly a 10 or 20 per cent drop in the amount of water vapour being
carried in the system represents a reduction in energy flow equivalent to more
than 20 times the total energy used in industry and agriculture across the
The moisture, originally picked up by the Trade Winds as they blow
across the tropical Atlantic Ocean (see Box 1), may therefore be deposited up
to seven times across the entire 4000 kilometre expanse of the Amazon Basin in
an unparalleled leap-frogging cycle of evapotranspiration and
precipitation. The Amazon River, having collected the run-off from all its
tributaries, carries less than half the total rainfall that precipitates over
the 7 million square kilometres of the Basin. The rest is carried in the air
mass travelling west across the Amazon Basin until it hits the mountain chain
of the Andes. There, the air stream splits into three branches. The central
part jumps over the Andes into the Pacific and continues west along the
Equator, following the convergence of the warm northern sea current. The
southern stream is deflected by the Andes and passes over Patagonia via the
Brazilian cerrado (savanna). The northern stream crosses the Caribbean, touches
the eastern seaboard of the US and goes over the Atlantic towards northern
How the earths atmosphere circulates
The circulation of the earths atmosphere modulates surface
temperatures over land and sea, and determines rainfall patterns (see Fig. 1).
Figure 1. The earths atmosphere circulates to
distribute warmth and moisture.
The earths atmosphere is set in motion because the tropics
are heated up more than the poles. The excess heat in tropic is transported
towards the poles by circulation of the atmosphere and by ocean currents (see
"Global warming & then the big freeze", this
At the Equator, the hot air with water
vapour expands and become less dense, so it rises, creating low pressure. But
as the hot air rises, it cools, the water vapour condenses and falls as rain.
This creates high rainfall in the Intertropical Convergence Zone in the
As the air mass cools, it increases in density and falls back
towards the surface in the subtropics (30 oN and S), creating high
pressure. The net circulation is referred as the Hadley Cell, one on either
side of the equator.
If the earth did not rotate, there would be a single
circulation cell in each hemisphere. Because of fluid motion on a rotating
sphere, the single cell is broken up into three circulation cells in each
hemisphere, named in order from the Equator: Hadley Cell, Ferrel Cell and Polar
This creates alternating bands of high and low pressures
approximately every 30o latitude. Wind arises as air moves
horizontally between regions of different pressures. Very little wind is
present at the Equator because air rises vertically as it heats up. Light,
variable winds at the equator are known as the Doldrums. Similarly, there is
little wind at 30oN and S where the air descends. Air always moves
horizontally from an area of high pressure to low pressure.
Wind blows straight down the pressure gradient but is deflected
by the Coriolus Force, which is a consequence of motion on a rotating sphere.
This deflects the wind to the right of the direction of motion in the Northern
Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.
The circulation of the earths atmosphere can be severely
perturbed by deforestation, with drastic consequences on climate and rainfall
The Amazon rainforest, if undisturbed, is a self-contained,
self-sustaining system of extraordinarily rich biological diversity (see Box
The Amazon rainforest is self-sustaining
The Amazon rainforest, especially over the unflooded areas, is a
remarkable self-contained system that depends crucially on the integrity of the
whole to sustain itself. The soils are among the poorest on the planet
washed out after millennia of heavy rains yet the vegetation and the
unparalleled richness of living organisms would seem to suggest a luxuriance
that derives from plenty rather than from deprivation. That paradox is the
miracle of the rainforest. In the 1980s, one of the worlds most
prestigious experts on Amazonia, Harald Sioli, director of the Max Planck
Institute for Limnology in Germany, told us how the entire system serves to
retain virtually all the nutrients within the biomass. Leaks of vital
nutrients, such as are common in temperate ecosystems would spell disaster. A
dense root mat system, combined with fungal mycorrhiza bridges, literally sucks
up any decomposing matter from the forest litter.
Above ground, the system of tall trees, with their extraordinary
profusion of epiphytes the ferns, orchids and bromeliads that have
attached themselves to the stem and branches of the great trees take up
any nutrients that are flushed down with the heavy rains. Most of the fauna
lives in the canopy, and is also perfectly integrated into the nutrient
recycling system by providing the sustenance for the lateral extension of the
forest. As a result, said Sioli, "the greatest number of plant and animal
species we are aware of (estimated at between 1.5 and 2 million species)
divides the general nutrient cycle into an immense number of
If we continue to destroy the rainforests of Amazonia, as well as those
remaining in Africa and in South-East Asia, we will perturb climate and
rainfall patterns across the entire planet. Tropical ecosystems will
undoubtedly collapse, with all that that means for agriculture across Latin
America, South-East Asia and Africa. Northern Europe will also feel the chill
that will come with a drastic reduction in the energy flows from the warm
In 2002, an area of Amazonia the size of Belgium - some 25 thousand
square kilometres - went up in flames. Already more than half a million square
kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon have gone in a matter of a few decades:
one-fifth of the total three and a half million square kilometres of
Brazils rainforest. To make matters worse, when areas are cleared of
trees the surrounding forest suffers die-back and disintegration. Carbon
emissions from areas of Amazon that have been cleared are likely to be at least
7 per cent higher than previously thought, because of that die-back the
equivalent of felling one million more hectares than are actually felled.
Molion points out that the Amazon forest canopy intercepts on average
about 15 per cent of the rainfall and that its removal would lead to as much as
4000 cubic metres (tonnes) per hectare per year hitting the ground. Because of
soil compaction much of that water would run off directly into the rivers,
rather than being retained and maintaining some soil moisture. The net result
is sandification whereby the heavy drops of rain hitting the ground
cause the selective erosion of finer clay particles, leaving behind
increasingly coarse sand. With time, the remaining soil has
virtually no water-retaining properties and the forest is unable to regenerate
itself. Soil under intact forest absorbs ten times more water compared with
nearby areas that have had pasture for five years. Outside the forest and away
from its soil-protecting attributes, erosion increases a thousand-fold.
When the forest is cleared, the contrast between day and night
temperatures becomes more extreme, leading to gustier winds that dry out soils
and send dust swirling into the air. Even if some forest is left around the
edges of clearings it will be under siege from water-stress as the water table
plummets. Large areas of the Amazon Basin are far closer to water stress than
scientists once thought and the clear-cutting and burning of large areas of
rainforest will inevitably precipitate die-back and death of the nearby forest.
We have no idea just what proportion of forest must be left for the system to
be self-maintaining. It may be three-quarters; perhaps even less: if so, with
20 per cent already gone, we are terrifyingly close to those limits. How
ludicrous, as many international conservation bodies have done, to think that
saving 10 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon would be anywhere near adequate.
Oliver Phillips and his colleagues from around the world reported in
Science in 1998 that, uniquely among tropical forest systems, the
neo-tropical forests of Central and South America, where they are intact, are
showing growth that amounts to as much as one tonne per hectare per year. If
all the forests of the Brazilian Amazon, covering some 360 million hectares,
put on biomass in that way, the Amazon would be an annual sink of up to 0.36
billion tonnes of carbon. In contrast, burning a hectare of forest releases up
to 200 tonnes of carbon, and the destruction of 10 million hectares a year
would release 2 billion tonnes of carbon, five to six times more in carbon than
is drawn down out of the atmosphere by the entire Brazilian Amazon.