EEB 122: Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior

Lecture 30

 - Energy and Matter in Ecosystems


The movement of matter and energy around the planet is very important, and its study draws on geology, and meterology in addition to chemistry. Energy tends to flow upwards from plantlike producers to herbivores to carnivores before being decomposed by detritovores and cycling back into energy usable by producers, in addition to the photosynthesis or chemosynthesis used by producers to produce energy. Like energy, compounds vital to life such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous flow around the planet in cycles.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior

E&EB 122 - Lecture 30 - Energy and Matter in Ecosystems

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Stephen Stearns: Okay. Now we’re going to talk about a different kind of ecology. We’re going to talk about the flow of energy and matter through ecosystems. Up until now we have been dealing mostly with the biological interactions of organisms with each other, with organisms of other species, and with some physiological ecology where they’re dealing with the physical and chemical problems presented by the environment. But now we’re going to look at the energy and flow of materials through ecosystems and biomes, and in the world as a whole, as a paradigm that’s driven primarily by physics and chemistry.

Now there are differences between ecosystem and community ecology, and I think that this–you know, some of this is a little bit light-hearted; some of it is dead serious. So in ecosystem ecology, one is primary concerned about the flow of matter and energy, and in community ecology primarily with inter-specific interactions.

The paradigm here is thermodynamics. So the mass balance equations, the second law, entropy increases, things like that. Here the issues are primarily competition, predation and history, and space. Okay? The kinds of measurements that get made are physical, chemical and geological here, and they’re biological here. So you don’t see Latin names and you don’t see species names in ecosystem ecology; and they are definitely present and they’re important in community ecology.

The way that scientists chunk reality in order to make it manageable is quite different. In ecosystem ecology, they worry about ecosystem compartments and stuff that moves between them, and in community ecology they worry mostly about species abundances and how it changes in time and space.

So the connection here is primarily to the biosphere. Here people are looking upward at larger, more complicated, bigger kinds of things; and in the community ecology they’re mostly looking downward at how the community interactions are driving the population dynamics of the individual species. So the connection here is to biology and the connection here is to geology. And the two things definitely connect to each other, okay? So they have strong implications for each other.

But, as you know, academic specialties themselves evolve, and people develop different paradigms and different language for dealing with problems, and they have tended to remain isolated from one another, and, unfortunately, sometimes they have even tended to denigrate one another, although they’re both perfectly valid ways of trying to analyze the world; they’re really just trying to answer different questions.

So today what I’m going to do is I’m just going to outline energy flow, cycles of materials and biogeochemical cycles through ecosystems. I’m dealing with it at a fairly descriptive level. There are methods of making this paradigm very quantitative. And if you get interested in it, really the place to go is geology. Ruth Blake does this kind of thing. She’s a biogeochemist in geology. This is a part of the world that has important implications for global warming, and which is driven mostly by things that have one cell. Okay? Whether they’re algae or bacteria, they are the main transducer between life and geology.

Chapter 2. Energy Flow through Ecosystems [00:04:05]

Now what is an ecosystem? Well it’s one of those sort of abstract terms that gets operationalized in a lot of different ways, depending on who’s doing the study. But generally speaking it’s the organisms in a particular place, plus the physical and chemical environment with which they’re interacting.

And it’s often a local example of some kind of biome. Okay? So it could be a local chunk of tundra, a local chunk of rainforest, a pond. It could be an upwelling area off Peru. It could be an alpine forest. It could be a lot of different things.

And people study how energy flows, and so the paradigm basically, at least for things that are in the part of the planet that are driven by the primary productivity of plants, it starts with photosynthesis, and the annual production is usually determined by temperature and moisture; certainly for terrestrial ecosystems.

Left out of this description is all of the chemosynthetic activity which occurs in deep, black, dark water at mid-ocean ridges, and which is occurring in the subterranean part of the biosphere that goes down- up to say five or ten kilometers, where there are bacteria that are living deep in the ground. And actually the pervasive influx of life, into the subterranean environment, is an important part in the biogeochemistry of the planet; that’s not covered here.

If we look around by, just by surface area, the planet’s about 65% open ocean; it’s about 5% continental shelf; desert’s about 5%–that’s extreme desert, okay, that’s just about nothing on the surface; semidesert, so Sahel, that kind of area, about almost 3½, 4%; 3% tropical rainforest; and so forth.

The idea here is you can take the planet and you can define different categories of the way things live on it, just by surface area, and break it down, and it looks like this. So here, if you were just to look at that, you would say, “Well, open ocean, continental shelf, desert and rainforest are the main biomes on the planet.” That’s just by surface area.

If you look at net primary production per square meter, you get a totally different view. Okay? So this is just by surface area, and this is by primary production per square meter. Look at how lousy the open oceans are. Open oceans are deserts. Why are open oceans deserts?

Student: No fresh water.

Professor Stephen Stearns: What?

Student: No fresh water.

Professor Stephen Stearns: No, it’s not that there’s no fresh water. What do you need if you’re going to make an ecosystem productive?

Student: Zooplankton [inaudible].

Professor Stephen Stearns: They need nutrients. Where are they going to get it?

Student: Weathering or–

Professor Stephen Stearns: They could get it from weathering or they could get it from upwelling. Where does upwelling occur?

Student: On a costal reef.

Professor Stephen Stearns: Yeah, continental margins. Get out in the middle of the ocean and there’s actually a tremendous amount of fertilizer there but it’s five miles down, three to five miles down, and you just can’t get it up. It’s sealed off, because the top of the ocean is warm and the bottom of the ocean is cold, and there’s no way that cold water can come up through warm water, unless you have Coriolis force or wind or something like that driving it. So that’s why the open oceans are deserts.

You’ll notice that tropical rainforests are highly productive per square meter. In general forests are pretty productive. Swamps and streams are very productive. Algal beds and reefs are quite productive, and so are estuaries. So if you want to go someplace where you’re–you know, you’re a naturalist, you like creepy-crawlies, you want frogs in your pocket, you want to see something new for Christmas, you go to these places; that’s where you’ll see a lot of stuff. Okay?

So right there you already know where the prospecting is good, if you like to see lots of biodiversity. Now if you look at percent contribution to global primary production, the open oceans again crop up, and that is because there’s just so darn much of them.

If you’re out there in space, looking at the world, you realize that you can fit all of the continents into the Pacific Ocean; it’s bigger than all the continents put together. And most of it is open ocean; most of it is low primary productivity open ocean. But there’s just so darn much of it that on the planetary scale it’s making a pretty good contribution.

And the tropical rainforests are big enough so that even though they’re only 3 and a half or 4% of the globe, they have such high primary productivity that they’re kicking in quite a bit. And the others, even though they are productive, occupy such a small portion of the globe that they’re not contributing that much.

Okay, so this is an overall view of energy flow on the planet, at least for the photosynthetically driven part of the planet. The sun is sending in the energy. And by the way, any idea of roughly how much of the sunlight that comes into the planet is actually captured by life? How efficient has the planet become at capturing photons?

Does it capture 50%, 10%, 1%, 1/10th of a percent? A guess? How many for 50% Hands up. How many for 10%? Hands up. A couple. How many for 1%? Hands up. How many for 1/10th of a percent? Hands up. See the grad students think it’s a 1/10th of a percent. It’s a small amount. I don’t know the precise number, but it’s down between 1/10 and 1% I think.

So even after 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history, the planet has not become terribly efficient at capturing sunlight. Freeman Dyson has got this definition of different kinds of civilizations. One of the stages of civilization would be when you can put a sphere around an entire solar system and capture all of the photons coming off of the sun and harness it for running a civilization. That would capture the entire solar output. Well, you know, we are a tiny little dot on the face of the sun, and we’re taking 1/10th to 1% of its photons. So this isn’t a very big number when you look at the solar output.

What happens is that basically algae, primarily algae, but also trees and all other larger plants, are capturing this. Then the herbivores are eating the plants. The primary carnivores are eating the herbivores. The secondary carnivores are eating the primary carnivores.

What do you think is in the red arrows, going off to the detritivores? In simple Anglo-Saxon, four letter words, what do you think is in the red arrow? Shit and corpses. Okay? That’s the red arrow. It’s pretty big.

Any idea what Africa would look like if you got rid of the dung beetles? You would need hip-waders; especially in the Serengeti or any of the big national parks. A pile of elephant dung is about this big. Okay? So that’s what’s going off in here. We are deeply indebted to dung beetles. [Laughs] Believe me. And to fungi.

What’s going off here is respiration. So that’s energy. You know, you all use it up every day. You’re using up somewhere between oh 3500 and 5000 calories a day, depending on whether you’re on a sports team or not. And so that’s what’s going off out here. And this is coming off of every level here. Okay? So you can think of this as what’s left over and this is the flow of all that ATP driven stuff on the planet surface.

Now how does that look in space? Well if you look at tons of carbon fixed per hectare per year, where green is a lot and yellow is a little, you can see that the forests are really important. Okay? And the closer you get to the equator and the wetter it gets, the more efficient the forests are at fixing carbon.

This is for the terrestrial part of the world. If you could put the reefs in, they would be fixing carbon, and they would be withdrawing it on kind of a different timescale. Because the tropical forests, although they fix a lot of carbon, don’t actually cleanse the atmosphere of CO2, at least not at equilibrium. Why not?

Student: As they’re [inaudible] they’re actually they’re also respiring.

Professor Stephen Stearns: They are respiring, yes. What happens to a tree when it dies?

Student: It releases a lot of carbon.

Professor Stephen Stearns: It releases a lot of carbon, right? So in fact you could grow up a big forest but you only get the carbon benefit the first time you grow it up; after that it goes into an equilibrium where the trees are falling down and the logs are rotting and they’re releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.

So yes, you can temporarily fix a lot of carbon by planting a lot of trees, but in the long run it’s not a stable solution because those trees get burned up; they either get literally burned up, or they get metabolized by the detritivores, and the detritivores put the carbon back into the system.

What happens when you fix carbon in a reef? You make limestone, and limestone sticks around for a long time. And if you take a big reef and you slam it into a continent with a tectonic collision, you get marble. So the marble quarries of the world are the fixed carbon of 3 to 500 million years ago. So you can actually tie up carbon for a much longer period more stably by putting it into limestone than you can by putting it into wood.

However, there are also some important things about different kinds of forests and how well they can grow, and a lot depends upon whether you have a deciduous tree or a conifer. And if you look around the world at the different kinds of forests, it turns out that the coniferous forests can actually fix more carbon per year than a deciduous forest, basically because they keep on growing at times when the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves. Okay?

So their primary productivity, in terms of tons of carbon per hectare per year, is about 1 and a half that of a deciduous forest. And I mention that because there are–these are the kinds of broad-scale biological differences that are important to pay attention to if you’re doing ecosystem ecology. There are some that you can ignore, but this is a big difference and it’s something that has to be kept track of.

So I think you’re getting an idea of the sort of filter that ecosystem ecology places on the details of other kinds of biology. Ecosystem ecology, it’s going to be interested in keeping track of things that make big differences to the flow of energy and materials, and it’s going to say we probably want to ignore the rest, just because life is complex enough as it is. Okay?

So this is really what’s driving that. And that’s why, if you go back and you look at those biomes, you will see that when people make biome classifications, they keep track of whether they’re dealing with a coniferous forest or a deciduous forest, and things like that.

Okay, if you look across the world at grasslands, forests and the open ocean, you see a nice food pyramid. And the green is the herbivores–excuse me, the green is the producers, the yellow is the herbivores, the red is the carnivores. And if you just look at biomass, you will see that in grasslands you have a few big fierce animals, that are rare, and then you’ve got a bunch of grazing animals that are a bit more common, and there are more of them, and then you’ve got a lot of plants; pretty much the same in the forest.

Out in the open ocean it’s really quite different. You have a few large top predators; so these are the tuna and the sharks and the whales and things like that. Then you’ve got a big biomass of herbivores, and then not too many- not too much biomass of the algae, in the open ocean.

If you look at the energy flow for the grasslands and the forests, it’s pretty similar to the standing crop. This would be the standing crop. This is how much energy calories per square meter per day is flowing through it.

But in the open ocean something is converting this kind of anomalous picture into a sort of standard food pyramid, when you look at energy flow. What’s doing it? What’s the difference between a grass and a single-celled alga?

Student: The algae are more efficient. [Inaudible]

Professor Stephen Stearns: Well you’re getting at it. They are more efficient, but they’re more efficient in a particular sense that makes a big difference to rates. Okay? This is the difference–this is a still photo and this is a movie. Okay? So there’s–that’s the difference. It’s a difference in rate. Yes?

Student: Algae reproduce a lot faster.

Professor Stephen Stearns: That’s basically it, yes. A single celled alga can probably have two generations per day and–at least one per day–and maybe even in a warm estuary three per day, whereas a grass is probably going to be lucky to get through two or three generations per season. Okay?

So there’s a difference of perhaps a hundredfold in the rate. And the things that are eating them have a much, much longer lifespan. So down here what’s going on is that the algae, there are not so many of them, but they’re cranking over like crazy, and they’re getting harvested like crazy by all of the planktivores in the ocean.

So the krill, the copepods, everything that eats algae, is grazing them, and that’s keeping the algae at a fairly low level. They’re a long away from their own carrying capacity. They’re in exponential growth rate almost all the time. So they’re booming along, and it doesn’t take so much standing crop to maintain a lot more biomass because they are turning over and reproducing and multiplying so quickly. So that is why you see this dramatic shift.

Chapter 3. Cycles of Materials through Ecosystem Compartments [00:20:51]

Okay, so that’s a bit of the overall description of the world’s ecosystems. Now let’s take a look at cycles of matter. Okay? The main compartments are oceans, fresh water, land and atmosphere, and they are exchanging materials all the time.

You’re already familiar with the upwelling patterns; I’ve mentioned that when I was discussing the Coriolis force. So this is where the nutrient-rich waters are coming to the surface. And in a place like the coast of Peru, you have millions and billions of seabirds, that are eating billions and trillions of anchovies and sardines, that are feasting on trillions and quadrillions of shrimp, that are eating algae, coming up there. Okay?

So you have the cold Humboldt current coming up and bending offshore here, heading out for the Galapagos, and as it’s moving out towards the west–in the Southern Hemisphere, remember, it is coming up towards the equator; the equator has a greater angular velocity than the southern part of South America, and the water is getting kind of left behind by the planet, as the planet pulls out this way. And because you have a continent here, there’s no water that’s left there to flow over and replace it. So the only place it can come up from is the bottom, and it comes up from the bottom and fertilizes this zone off the West Coast of South America.

Well over the course of hundreds of millions of years the seabirds that nest on islands offshore, so that they can get away from the predators that would their eggs on a continent, have built up a huge deposit of guano on the Chilean Islands. And this was a matter of international significance, prior to the First World War, because nitrogen was so critical in the manufacture of arms.

You remember the Oklahoma City bombing, when Timothy McVeigh simply took nitrogen fertilizer and mixed it with diesel fuel, and put it into a truck and blew up a building. A lot of energy in nitrogen; okay, nitrate, powerful stuff. And this is where the world supply was. And, by the way, that repeats at many other upwelling areas around the globe. And just prior to World War One, Haber and Bosch figured out a way of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, as ammonia and urea–they did it at high temperature and pressure– and that was actually what kept Germany in the war between 1916 and 1918. Okay?

So the reason I am mentioning this is that I’m trying to use a vivid example that shows you how the flow of materials between different compartments and ecosystems has actually influenced world history for human culture. And in this case it was basically the seabirds taking it out of the ocean and putting it on land; and putting it on in huge quantities.

So now there’s about 100 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer produced every year. It’s about 1% of global industrial energy, and it sustains 40% of the global human population. So these kinds of processes actually are part of the substructure of our modern and post-modern culture, and it gives you some feel for an ecosystem service. Prior to the Haber-Bosch process, this fixing of nitrogen out of the atmosphere could only be done by biological organisms, and this is an estimate really of how big that ecosystem function was.

Okay, so let’s run through some of these cycles. Almost all the nitrogen that’s on the surface of the planet is biologically inaccessible; it’s in the form of N2. N2 is a molecule that is extremely difficult to react with. And there are–it can be converted into something that’s biologically accessible, primarily by bacteria and by cyanobacteria and by lightening.

So if you go out and simply have a lightening storm pass overhead, and you compare the rain that you get out of it, with and without lightening, in the five minutes or so after a lightening strike directly overhead, if you’re holding a cup out there, you’re going to be getting nitrogen fertilizer. It’ll be fairly dilute, but it’s over a huge area.

Much more important are the bacteria and cyanobacteria that can convert nitrogen into nitrate. And most of that’s going on in the soil, okay? So this is biological fixation. It’s bringing it down into the soil. It gets processed and de-nitrified and goes back up as N2. There’s some industrial fixation; the Bosch-Haber process is doing that. This runs off, gets into the ocean and fertilizes the ocean.

If we look at the impact of nitrate and sulfate on human problems and on terrestrial ecosystems, one of the big ones is acid precipitation. So this stuff right here, all of human industry and cars and so forth, which in the United States has been concentrated in an area mostly roughly between Chicago and Pennsylvania, right here, this area, because of the–remember our Hadley cells and the jet stream and the reason that the air is flowing from west to east across the continent–all of that emission is getting picked up and it’s getting dropped on lakes in Canada and the Northeastern United States.

So in 1955 the pH in this region of the country, in freshwater bodies, had dropped to 4.6; that’s starting to get pretty acid. And by the way it was a much bigger problem for a lake that was sitting on granite than for a lake that was sitting on limestone. Why would it be more of a problem on granite than on limestone?

Student: Limestone’s basic.

Professor Stephen Stearns: Limestone’s basic. It’s also a buffer. So limestone will basically put a lot of carbonate into the water and buffer this. So this was a big problem, and in fact some lakes were losing all of their fish populations. However, there were improvements in air quality control around the country, and this has spread, but in many places it’s also been ameliorated.

I’d say it still remains a serious problem, and it’s a situation that also causes international tensions, because basically Eastern Canada is getting hammered by U.S. industrial and car emissions, because the flow of materials around the planet does not respect the arbitrary national boundaries that humans have created.

It’s even worse in Europe. In Europe the industrial production of Germany, which creates a huge load of acid in the atmosphere, gets dumped on Scandinavia, which is old Scandinavian basalt shield; so they don’t really have any limestone buffer up there in Scandinavia. And that’s one of the issues that gets talked a lot about in the European Union is how to equalize these kinds of costs. Because basically Canada is being treated as an externality by the United States, and Scandinavia is being treated as an externality by Germany. So that sort of thing needs conflict resolution.

Chapter 4. Biogeochemical Cycles [00:29:11]

Okay, water. The hydrological cycle is critical because you can’t grow plants without water, and you can’t grow humans without water either. And as the human population has gone up over five, and now through six billion, fresh water on the planet is becoming very, very scarce. And, you know, we think we have it tough in this country because Arizona keeps screaming that it needs more water from California, and California says no, we’re going to divert the Columbia River down to Los Angeles or something like that, and the people that live in Oregon get all up in arms.

But that is nothing compared to the problems of the Middle East and North Africa, where water is actually one of the ground- the basic reasons for conflict among nations in those areas. And if you doubt that, look at where the dams are that Turkey has built on the Euphrates and the Tigress, and what that means for Iraq and Syria. Okay? Or look at all of the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which are many and cultural and religious and many other things, but they also have a lot to do with water.

So the water cycle is really quite critical. And I want to just mention a couple of things about it. The standard issue with water is that most of it’s in the ocean, and it evaporates from the ocean; of course, it evaporates more when the oceans are warmer.

Remember the El Niño effect–right?–when that warm water from the Western Pacific flows back over towards the Eastern Pacific, then the evaporation of the oceans increases, you get a lot more water in the atmosphere, and rainfall goes up, from the Galapagos to Arizona, and right through to Connecticut.

So the oceans are a very important source of evaporation. However evaporation off of freshwater lakes is also significant, and anyone who lives in Rochester or Buffalo will tell you just exactly how significant it is, after they’ve had a three-foot snowfall from lake effect snow–right?–which is basically been driven by this process. So the water goes up and it cycles through the rivers, back into the ocean, and long-term basically the amount going in equals the amount going out, and as long as the West Antarctic ice sheet doesn’t collapse, or Greenland melts, the level of the ocean stays about the same.

By the way, the estimate on the Antarctic ice sheets is that if the ones that are currently grounded melt, that means there’s an ice sheet that’s offshore, but it’s resting on the ocean bottom. And there are two big ones: one is the Ross Sea ice shelf, I think, and the other one is an ice shelf on the other side of the continent. If those two melt, then the ocean goes up about ten meters, about thirty feet. So the level of the ocean will go up and down a bit.

So there’s a very interesting thing that’s going on with evapotranspiration out of forests, and I’m going to illustrate it first with a picture and then with a story about the Amazon. Okay? So if we go to the Mediterranean, and we look at the impact of what the dairying culture did, on the Mediterranean–so people started keeping sheep and goats, and goats are incredibly efficient at removing brush and grass from the landscape–basically what the goats did is that they desertified the periphery of the Mediterranean, all the way around. They did it between about 5000 and 2000 years ago.

So if you back, you can read in Greek and Roman commentary about all of the wonderful grain that was grown in North Africa, in places like Libya and in Tunisia and Algeria, and you can read descriptions of the wild forested habitat of Greece. And you go to those places today, many of them don’t look quite this desolate, but they’re certainly much more like this than they are like a nice deciduous forest or a chaparral. So goats had a big impact. And you ask yourself, “Well why does that happen?”

Well we can actually, by looking the Amazon rainforest, we can get a pretty clear idea of what was going on in the periphery of the Mediterranean. So the transpiration from the trees, in the Amazon, is taking a huge amount of water out of the soil and putting it up into the atmosphere every day.

So wherever you are in the Amazon Basin, usually by noon or about 2:00 in the afternoon, you’ve got a cloud sitting over your head, and that’s the water that came out of the ground that day. And there’s also moisture, of course, that’s coming in from the Atlantic, and it’s blown west, up towards the Andes, in the clouds.

And because of this transpiration, if you look at a molecule of water that’s coming in off the South Atlantic, by the time it hits the Andes it’s gone in and out four times; it’s rained four times by the time it gets to the Andes. So having the forest there is making very efficient use of that water.

It is a positive feedback loop whereby the presence of the forest is maintaining the presence of the forest. And if you cut down the forest, the rainfall will decrease and the total plant growth will diminish, and that will accelerate the conversion of forest into savanna. So this is an extreme case of that process.

In the Amazon there’s enough stuff coming in off of the South Atlantic, and it’s at–remember if you look at your Hadley cells, it’s in a region of the world near the equator where you have warm moist air rising. So you’re going to have planetary forces generating rainfall, whether there are trees there or not, but you move just 30 degrees north, to the Mediterranean, and you don’t have that.

Here, at the Mediterranean, you have got, in your Hadley cell circulation, you have got cold, dry air falling, and you don’t get the planetary forces regenerating and replenishing the rainfall and the forests that had been there had been an important local source of transpiration into the atmosphere. So at the equator this is what you get, and boy is this stuff efficient at getting water up into the atmosphere.

One that a lot of you have read a lot about I know is atmospheric carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses and global warming. And it is the immediate source of carbon for terrestrial organisms, but it’s really only a tiny part of the global carbon cycle. So if we look at the carbon cycle, and we look at storage in gigatons of carbon–the storage here is in black and the flux in gigatons of carbon is in purple.

So there’s about 750 gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere. In the surface of the ocean there’s about 1000 gigatons. In the deep ocean there’s 38,000 gigatons of carbon, and so forth. Okay? So vegetation has got a bit less; all the vegetation of the globe has got a bit less carbon in it than there is in the atmosphere, and only about 1/50th as much as there is in the deep ocean. And there is carbon which is moving between all these compartments.

The fossil fuel and cement production of the world has got about 4000 gigatons stored, and it’s putting about 5 gigatons per year into the atmosphere. So if we look at that flux, overall there’s a big exchange between the oceans and the atmosphere. There’s a pretty big impact of photosynthesis.

Plant respiration is putting just about everything back into the atmosphere that it’s taking out. So this is pretty much a wash right here. The increment from fossil fuel and land use looks pretty small compared to the overall process. But the critical thing is whether or not at equilibrium you’re just pushing that equilibrium a little bit, because these are rates, and rates accumulate.

Back in about 1955 or so, a forward thinking atmospheric scientist started measuring the carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere right here at 11,000 feet on Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii. And he chose that because there you’re about 2500 miles out from any continent. The atmosphere has been well mixed by the trade winds, and you’re going to get a very, very well mixed sort of standard signal that’s not contaminated by any local industry or anything like that.

This is what it looks like. This is the Mauna Loa direct measurement signal over here, and these are inferences of past levels of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. This is parts per million by volume in the atmosphere, over here. And you can see that there’s a signal that human industrial activity has been increasing carbon dioxide level arguably since the late nineteenth century–okay?–and it’s accelerating upward. These are from ice core measurements that are done mostly in Greenland by Danes and Swiss who go to Greenland and bore down through the icecap.

Now let’s put that in perspective, okay? So this is today and this is 500 million years ago, and these are all different kinds of measurements of carbon dioxide through the last 550 million years. And the 30 million year filter is–this is a moving average, a 30 million year moving average–and basically what it shows is that most of the time the earth has had a lot more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere than it currently has; much more than anything that has been contributed by human activity and industry in the last 150 years.

This is estimated by various different methods, and it has a couple of striking features. Look what happens to carbon dioxide between the Ordovician and the Carboniferous. It is sucked out of the atmosphere. Where do you think it went?

Student: Over there.

Professor Stephen Stearns: Some. Some went into reefs. It went into your gas tank. That’s when oil and coal were made. So when land plants first evolved–and that was when- that was the first big forest, planet covering forest, and it was warm and moist–in those carboniferous swamps, you know, generation after generation, for thousands of generations of plants, built up.

Then there’s an interesting re-injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the Permian, and it happens particularly at the end-Permian crisis, and this re-injection then does have the oceanic element. Okay? So some of that stuff did get stored, like in the Black Sea, right here, and then with the end-Permian extinction and the breakup of Pangaea and the re-ordering of the oceanic circulation patterns it got re-injected.

Then throughout the Mesozoic–so throughout the time that the earth was dominated by dinosaurs and their other relatives–it was pretty warm and plants could really grow. They were getting–by the way, carbon dioxide is a fairly good fertilizer; so plants do grow more rapidly when they have more of it, if they aren’t being limited by some other nutrient.

And then when we get into the last 65 million years, here, carbon dioxide is going down, down, down, until we get to what we perceive as the normal concentration–right?–the normal concentration being down here. Well it was a lot higher, for a long period of time.

I think there’s an important message in that. The important message is that at the scale of life on the planet, global warming is trivial. Life has dealt with it and will deal with it just fine. There will be extinctions, but life will not go extinct because of global warming. There’s been plenty of species that could deal with much warmer conditions on the planet, and those kinds of things will increase in abundance as things warm.

However that doesn’t mean that global warming is not important. Global warming is especially important because of sea level rise, and because of the increase in variation in weather patterns, which means that both periods of drought and floods will become more frequent at intermediate latitudes, and the intensity and the number of major storms will probably increase.

It would be interesting to know what the hurricane strength was like back in the Silurian. You know? Katrina might have been just a little blip, compared to a Silurian hurricane, but unfortunately we don’t know how big they were.

Now the fate of the carbon that was in the original planetary atmosphere can be sketched here. And basically what you see is that it’s mostly in limestone and in sediment, and there’s a huge chunk of it sitting in the ocean as bicarbonate. So think about that the next time you buy a bottle of soda water or sparkling water. That’s representative of 37 or 38,000 gigatons of carbon.

Fossil fuel, organic sediment and so forth, you find that there’s dissolved CO2, which actually is the molecule CO2, and not as the bicarbonate ion, in the ocean. Living biomass, fairly small; methane in the atmosphere pretty small. So when you look at that, you wonder well where is the biggest source of carbon that might get mobilized into the atmosphere?

And in fact it’s in methane hydrate. Okay? Methane hydrate will be a solid in cold water but it will melt and release methane with just a little increase in temperature. Okay? It turns out there’s about 100 trillion cubic meters of methane hydrate stockpiled around the planet, sitting there in sediments, ready to be mobilized.

So if the world’s oceans warm up by a few degrees, there will be a very dramatic positive feedback effect as this methane comes bubbling out. And methane is a more efficient greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, by quite a bit. So its contribution to global warming could triple and really accelerate, if things warm up.

And this is just a picture showing you that methane hydrate is stored in places like the sediments underneath deep water. So you have, say in the Arctic, it will be fairly shallow; off Louisiana it will be fairly deep. But there’s a lot of it.

The phosphorous cycle is different from the carbon and nitrogen cycles because phosphorous doesn’t have a gaseous phase. It’s a solid or a liquid. And it’s the scarcest essential element. Of course, we need it for ATP, we need it to build the phosphate sugar backbone of DNA, and we need it for energy transmission and so forth; all life needs it for that. But it is really pretty scarce in the crust. So it is usually limiting.

Now if you just go out there and you pour a bunch of phosphate into the landscape, this is what you get. Okay? You get lakes filled with algal blooms, and that is showing you the dramatic response of–the algal population and plant population in lakes is showing you that phosphorous really is the limiting factor. So phosphate fertilizer is very important in agro-ecosystems, and phosphate fertilizer gets washed into lakes and fish die. Why do fish die in an eutrophic lake that has a lot of algae in it? What’s killing them? Yes?

Student: Because when the algae becomes decomposed, those [inaudible] will take a lot of it and change it into nitrogen. [Inaudible]

Professor Stephen Stearns: Well you’ve got it right about anoxia, but you got the mechanism wrong. By the way, the bottom of a eutrophic lake is anoxic and the process you described is going on there. But the algae don’t have to die to do that.

Student: [Inaudible]

Professor Stephen Stearns: Well the algae certainly are taking the sunlight out of the top of the water. But when does the oxygen disappear from the lake? I remember the bad joke about the astronaut who was not so bright, who said, “Ah, we are going to take our new spacecraft and we are going to land on the sun.” And he was asked, “How are you ever going to land on the sun?” And he said, “Don’t worry, we are going at night.” It happens at night.

At night the algae are all there. They’re not making oxygen because there’s no photons coming in, but they still have to breathe themselves, and they just suck all the oxygen out of the water and the fish are asphyxiated. They don’t have to die to do it. They’re just naturally living their lives as normal healthy algae and they suck the oxygen out of the water at night.

Chapter 5. Conclusion [00:48:13]

Okay, so some take-home points on ecosystems. Movement of matter and energy around the planet is really important, and there are some really interesting large-scale issues. And if you like big numbers and you like to calculate and look at flow models and compartment models and differential equations and stuff like that, biogeochemistry has a place for you. The contact here is with geology, physical chemistry and meteorology. The connections are important. They’re not all well worked out. So there must be important connections between ecosystem ecology and community ecology, but they are still being explored, and this is not an area that’s really mature yet.

The part of ecology that analyses these processes really is the part that deals with the fate of the planetary environment, especially water and air, and that means it has important economic and political implications. So it’s an area well worth worrying about and learning something about and remembering, because these are the processes that will affect the quality of human life on the planet, for forever basically.

Okay, next time I’m going to discuss biodiversity, and about whether it matters or not, and about what extinctions mean. If you want to go to lunch today, I can go.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]