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Lisha Kill Forest Preserve
Niskayuna, NY

Bob Leverett
leads the way into an Ancient Forest

Lisha Kill Forest Preserve, Niskayuna, NY

PHOTO: DYarrow 12/1/01

Ancient Forests
The Balance of Life

Breath of the Planet

Oxygen is the most extra-ordinary feature of Earth's atmosphere. Oxygen is a highly reactive element. It easily exchanges electrons with other atoms to form bonds and release energy. So any free oxygen in the air should quickly react with and bond to other atoms, forming oxides—ash, or dust—and thus rapidly disappear from the air. By physic's universal Law of Entrophy, hardly any oxygen should be free in the atmosphere.

Yet, oxygen, for well over a billion years, has been nearly constant in the Earth's atmosphere at one-fifth—or 20%. So, not only is oxygen unexpectedly abundant in Earth's atmosphere, but even more oddly, oxygen has rarely varied more than a few percent for nearly the entire period of evolution. Without this remarkable stability, the evolution of life would have been more than unlikely—it would have been impossible.

To have oxygen in the air creates a fundamental capacity to capture and hold charge as oxygen's two mobile, unpaired, outer orbital electrons. Our human organ that consumes the most oxygen is our brain—seat of our phyical awareness—center of consciousness and connection—our portal of creative intelligence. Without Earth's oxygen-enriched air, humans could not have developed our higher brain functions, intellectual capacity and intuitive sensitivity.

In the 1960s, as America and Russia raced to the moon, British scientist James Lovelock was hired by NASA to devise simple tests by which a space probe can detect life on other planets. The remarkably steady supply of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere—a constant 20% for over a thousand millennia—caught Lovelock's attention, and convinced him that only deliberate intention can allow this feat of chemistry that defies the Law of Entrophy.

Lovelock pondered this impossible chemical dilemma, and went on to offer The Gaia Hypothesis—his theory that Earth is a single, unified organism. Ancient Greeks believed the Earth is a Goddess, and her name in Greek mythology was "Gaia." This British scientist did more than invent a few tests for life on other planets. He expressed a vision of the Earth as a whole individual entity, with an intrinsic ability to sustain the stasis and stability required to gestate complex forms of biological life.

James Lovelock resurrected ancient mythology within the modern science of whole systems when he conceived that all life on Earth is one organism—a whole greater than the sum of all the individuals and species alive on the planet. A biological E pluribus unum—out of many, one.

Solar Powered Biology

Plants created the Earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere. Over one billion years ago, in Earth's early ocean, the most complex life was bacteria surviving by extracting chemical energy from minerals. But then, a bacteria made an extra-ordinary evolutionary leap by learning to live on sunshine and water. This ability to extract energy from the abundance of sunlight and water was a great advantage, and these evolutionary innovators proliferated and spread.

These first Plants on Earth were cyanobacteria (or bluegreen algae). These primeval pioneers in planetary evolution perfected photosynthesis. Earth's first plants learned to make chlorophyll, with a Magnesium atom in its heart. chlorophyll's elaborate multi-ring molecule captures photons of sunlight, and use this solar energy to pry apart water molecules and liberate energy as electrons and protons, and create carbohydrates from carbon dioxide. These green-celled beings spin sunshine into sugar, using water as fuel.

Bluegreen algae succeeded very well in evolution, and grew thick in the shallow, sunlit seas. Eventually, they learned to live together in dense, crowded colonies, which then enclosed themselves in a thin membrane, and later anchored themselves to bedrock. These first cousins of cyanobacteria were Earth's first multi-celled organisms—complex colonies called "stromatolytes." They thrived in the warm, alkaline, sunlit waters of early continental shelves, and succeeded so well, they overwhelmed the Earth, and poisoned the atmosphere, killing most of Earth's anaerobic organisms.

Gaia's Lungs

Oxygen is the by-product of this sugar synthesis by Plants—left over after prying electrons and protons apart from water. Three oxygen molecules are liberated into the air for each sugar molecule made. Before bluegreen algae, there was no oxygen in Earth's atmosphere. These earliest plants were so successful and prolific, oxygen rose rapidly, changing the composition and energy of the atmosphere forever.

Only Plants can create sugar and oxygen from sunshine, air and water. No other organism is as effective and efficient at this function as The Family of Plants. This is their unique and irreplacable service to the other living organisms on Earth.

Animals can't exist on Earth without Plants, producing sugar and oxygen. Animals breathe oxygen into their lungs, where it is attracted and held by Iron in Heme of Hemoglobin in red blood cells. Oxygen—loosely held by the iron—is carred by arteries to a cell, which uses the oxygen to burn sugar, and release the solar energy stored in the chemical bonds of those carbohydrates.

Carbon Dioxide and water are also liberated by this sugar metabolism. Carbon dioxide is attracted to Iron in Hemoglobin, and carried by red blood cells through veins to the lungs, where it is released and exhaled.

So, Plants developed first in evolution, and created conditions—sugar and oxygen—to allow Animals to appear. Animals continue to depend on Plants for energy and oxygen.

  • Plants take in carbon dioxide to create sugar, and breathe out oxygen
  • Animals inhale oxygen to burn sugar, and exhale carbon dioxide

    Chlorophyll and Heme have very similar—nearly equivalent—chemical structure. Both use the same fundamental structure to capture and carry energy for their most basic metabolic processes. This mimicry in molecular geometry reveals the primary importance of this intimate inter-relationship between Plant and Animal. These graphic images are a marvelous depiction of the powerful symmetry between these fundamental elements of the planetary ecosystem.

    Atmosphere and Climate

    The Biocyle depicts this circular relationship between Plants and Animals. Life is based on circles, and among the Earth's many Circles of Life, the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle affects nearly every living creature. All advanced life on Earth—everything more complex than bacteria—lives within the balance of this fundamental interaction.

    For over a billion years, the balance of life on Earth revolved around this reciprocal respiration of Plants and Animals. The Earth's atmosphere is a delicate balance of gases that interact with plants and animals to maintain temperature and moisture conditions best for an abundance of life.

    One important consequence of this Biocycle is the planetary atmosphere, global climate and regional weather. The balance between Plants and Animals is perfectly revealed in the oxygen-carbon dioxide ratio of the atmosphere. One billion years of nearly constant 20% oxygen in Earth's atmosphere testifies to the careful and crucial stability between Plants and Animals in the planetary Biocycle. Fluctuations in this oxygen-carbon dioxide ratio indicate changes in the plant and animal comunities inhabiting the Earth.

    Through several mechanisms—including the now infamous greenhouse effect, but also by shading and cooling stone, soil and water, by absorbing rainfall, filtering air, and influencing clouds—Plants and Animals exert primary effects on climate and weather.

    Trees: Anchor of Ecosystems

    Of all Plants on Earth, trees are the largest and most complex. Individual trees are among the Earth's oldest living organisms—many living for thousands of years. And while algae in Earth's oceans and soils may amount to a greater biomass, trees are much more highly organized and specialized than single-celled algae, and trees live directly in the atmosphere. And trees evolved into forests: complex, multi-layered communities of many species of trees, shrubs, herbs, insects, birds, animals, and other living organisms, all living closely in intimate interedependence.

    While trees are generating oxygen, they remove carbon dioxide from the air. With their spreading branchs and finely divided leaves, they comb and filter the air. Trees store this carbon dioxide by making carbohydrates, and then building their leaves, limbs, roots, and trunks from the many forms and mutations of carbohydrates. Trees further store carbon dioxide the humus that forms around them from their decaying leaves and wood. Over many centuries, the rich, fertile humus that accumulates as the topsoil of an Ancient Forest can become many feet thick. Their presence in Ancient Forests allowed the Earth to continuously scrub excess carbon from the atmosphere.

    Over millions of years, huge trees spread across the Earth to create vast, thick forests covering all but the most rugged land. In death, thick beds of these decaying trees were preserved and buried to great depths. In geological time, these graveyards of the Ancient Forest became fossilized into new bedrock—as coal, the black bedrock that is burned to create heat—a favorite fossil fuel of industrial civilization. In that same geological era—the Carboniferous Era—the supremacy of reptiles as dinosaurs and their kin contributed to the Earth's huge deposits of oil— or hydrocarbons—industrial civilization's other favorite fossil fuel.

    carbon sequestration and climate

    The Broken Circle

    The Biocycle balance is seriously disturbed today, evidenced in recent decades by slow, steady increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mostly, this increase is attributed to combustion of fossil fuels—coal and oil, mostly—to provide fire to power industrial civilization. A growing scientific consensus believes this planetary increase in carbon dioxide will cause a significant rise in global temperatures, disrupting weather, changing climate, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, raising sea levels, and nobody knows what other upsets to reliable ecosystem stability.

    The Earth is heating up. A sharp increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is a major cause. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 25% since the Industrial Age began, and scientists estimate it could double in the next century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was chartered to advise the world's governments, has predicted that if net greenhouse-gas emissions are not reduced, the averaege surface temperature of the Earth could rise by a best-estimate of 3.5 degrees by the year 2100—about half as much as the planet has warmed since the coldeset part of the last Ice Age.

    If this global warming happens, the huge polar ice caps may melt, causing oceans to flood low islands and coastlines, including many major cities. Heat waves will become more common, and weather patterns will be disrupted worldwide.

    But this relationship is a cycle. What goes up must come down. Excess arises from deficiency. In a self-contained, closed cycle system such as global climate and planetary ecosystem, excess energy doesn't disappear, but circulates to greater extremes before swinging back through home. What goes around, comes around.

    While men have mined the Earth to burn fossil carbon stored in sedimentary rocks, they also cut down or burned the forests, and plowed the praries. Mankind has destroyed a third of the world's forests, and forests continue to disappear at a devastating rate. Currently, almost 100,000 acres of the world's forests are burned and converted to other uses every day. Halting forest destruction is vital if we sre to slow the greenhouse effect.

    These actions released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and weaken The Biocycle to remove excess carbon with chlorophyll respiration by plants. Both sides of the Biocycle have been upset.

    consequences of forest destruction


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    TERRA: The Earth Renewal and Restoration Alliancewww.championtrees.orgupdated: 8/2/2002