EL NIÑO TRYING TO TELL US?
January 31, 2010
I have encountered
the word "Gaia" twice in the last month.
time was in a series of questions someone asked following another week
of stormy weather. "Is El Niño telling us something more than
that the western Pacific Ocean waters are warmer than in the past few
years? Is El Niño confirming the Gaia hypothesis? Is it a response
to global warming?" The weather questions were related to last summer's
announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that
the climate phenomenon known as El Niño, a warming of the Pacific
Ocean that causes widespread changes in the weather, would be making an
appearance in 2009 and probably remain through the winter of 2009-2010.
time was when I told a friend of that discussion and she said, "Gaia
supporters have the 'granola mentality'; they think Nature and Mother
Earth will keep the planet healthy."
Who or what
is Gaia, and how might a weather phenomenon confirm the Gaia hypothesis?
In Greek mythology, the goddess Gaia was indeed Mother Earth. The modern
references to Gaia are based in that concept, with Earth itself being
considered a superorganism that responds to changes that affect it.
of Earth, or Gaia, as a self-regulating superorganism was formulated three
decades ago by J. E. Lovelock in a book titled "Gaia: A New Look
at Life on Earth." The concept, which had its roots with the early
Greeks, has persisted and is now a doctrine of some environmentalists,
as well as some respected scientists. Many scientists, however, dispute
hypothesis, or "theory" as its advocates now call it, proposes
that the physical and chemical conditions on Earth, including those of
the atmosphere, oceans, and land masses, are held in equilibrium by the
living inhabitants of the planet, which means all life, not just humans.
In contrast to the generally held assumption that life on Earth has adapted
and adjusted through evolution to environmental conditions on the planet,
the Gaia concept presents a world in which life itself maintains the worldwide
is the salinity level in the ocean, where salts are constantly added by
physical and chemical processes. According to Lovelock, seas left strictly
to physical and chemical forces would eventually reach an unlivable state.
The Gaia hypothesis proposes that, since the beginning of life on Earth
3.5 billion years ago, ocean salinity has been under biological control
(in contrast to strictly physical or chemical mechanisms) through a cooperative
action of ocean organisms. That is, living creatures in the sea, primarily
algae and protozoa, have served a salt-removal role, maintaining the oceans
in a state that can support life.
be removed from ocean waters by deposition on the bottom. A proposed mechanism
is the constant shower of dead micro-organisms falling to the ocean floor.
As salinity levels begin to rise, plankton incorporate salt into their
outer coverings. When they die and sink to the ocean depths, they remove
the increased salt load.
concept gives comparable explanations for the maintenance of atmospheric
gasses in proportions necessary to sustain life. Without the constant
biological creation of oxygen and methane, for example, the air most animals
breathe would be profoundly altered. According to the Gaia hypothesis,
the organisms of the world work together to sustain an atmosphere that
of the earth itself and its inhabitants sustaining environmental equilibrium
is a contentious issue among many nonscientists. Oddly enough, opponents
approach the issue from two different points of view but from the same
starting point: the Gaia hypothesis does not place human beings in a central
role. Some opponents perceive Gaia advocates as people who place the welfare
of other organisms on the same level as, or even above, humankind. Others
object because the Gaia hypothesis might offer an excuse for behaving
in an environmentally irresponsible manner.
Gaia framework humans are simply one species among millions, with no special
rights. The presence of humans would make little difference to the survival
of Gaia. If we disappeared, the equilibrium would continue.
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