Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bringing Geology to Life (Literally)

For those of us who thought rocks were inanimate, or that the only link between rocks and life was that of substrate, it's time to think again. Rocks (or at least, minerals) are not life's silent partner. Rocks and ecosystems have a sort of dialogue. A Texas Two-step.

This is a discovery termed "breathtaking" by Stanford University geologist Gary Ernst.

Carnegie Institution's mineralogist, Robert Hazen, is the lead researcher in the study. Hazen, a scientist of impeccable and long repute, has tracked the evolution of minerals through geologic time. His inquiry began, he notes, when a colleague asked "Were there clay minerals in the Archean?"-- a time period that began 4 billion years ago or so.

Only a dozen or so minerals --mostly simple metals or metal compounds-- are considered "Primordial" with such basic structures that they are among the first solid compounds formed in nebulae. Iron. Nickel. Copper.

Meteorites--the stuff of the early, inanimate universe 4.6 billion years or more ago--contain a grand total of only 60 minerals and had to undergo the heat and pressures of planetary agglomeration to form. Most, in stony meteorites (Chondrites) are the kind of basic material that we learned in Geology 101. Olivine. Pyroxene. Feldspar.

Fast-forward to the start of Earth's plate tectonics 4.2 billion years ago. More mineral varieties appear. as water, heat and pressure become more available . The total of likely minerals at the start of Plate Tectonics blossoms to 250.

Life appears on the scene at 4 billion years, give or take a few days. And the number of minerals blossoms. At the end of the Archean, marked by the appearance of oxygen and the invention of photosynthesis, Hazen and his colleagues can count 4300 minerals. They include clays, hydrated minerals, and a whole bunch of compounds that never made it to your mineral ID tray. What life seems to be doing is crafting new niches and pressure/temperature conditions ... and minerals, bless their little stony souls, seem to be adapting.

The point is that as biological complexity has increased, so has mineralogical complexity. Rate development of new varietys of minerals increases a hundred-fold once life gets into the act. The linkage is so clear that Hazen uses the term "Co-evolved."

He is not the only venerable scientist to recognize the link between planet and life. At the University of Chicago, mineralogist Joseph Smith has long seen minerals as catalysts for biochemical change. University of Glasgow scientist Graham Caims-Smith argues that clays--the actual silicate minerals--developed into the first life forms. (While this is reminiscent of several Star Trek episodes, there is also a long and honored tradition of Science being even stranger than science fiction.) Caim-Smith's rationales for clay minerals as very early templates for what would later become carbon-based life are taken very seriously by those scientists tracking the origin of life.

Rocks may seem solid and unfeeling, and we have yet to ascribe emotions to them. (Although "stony silence" comes to mind...) But there is now no question that the link between life and geology is vital, and that it is a two-way street. We interact. Slowly, but we interact.

We are co-evolved.

Geology is sometimes seen as a second-class science. Not very relevant to life. Not very dynamic (unless there's an earthquake or a Mt. St. Helens.) But now there's a clear link to life science as well as physical science. It is a sort of Renaissance. And at least a recognition of what geologists innately recognize. Life rocks.

Rock on!



Friday, November 28, 2008

Are we there yet?

Travel at Thanksgiving always comes with great expectations. A superb dinner, a warm time with family, a renewal of bonds. The drive to Grandma's is fraught with anticipation and perhaps even some apprehension. (Will she serve the Green Bean Casserole?) Not to mention the plaintive voices from the back seat: "Are we there yet?"

This is true of any journey, including the one we are all unintentionally embarked on--the exploration of changing climate.

In Central Oregon this Thanksgiving we are blessed with dry, sun-drenched balmy weather -- in the 50's maybe even 60's (read "cursed with balmy weather" if you are a skier or more importantly, a farmer or an ecosystem, neither of which are on most evening weather reports radar screen....) Is this part of climate change? It's hard to say. The journey to a warmer globe is long and complicated, we're told.

But maybe not. Now, Yale' geologist Mark Pagani and nine other researchers, including James Hansen, have sounded a clear warning: ".... we have reached atmospheric CO2 levels that compromise polar ice sheets." Let the melting begiin. (It already has.) Goodbye New Orleans. Goodbye Calcutta. Goodbye Bangladesh.

When we started the Industrial Revolution about 1800, atmospheric CO2 stood at 280 PPM. Today it's 385 PPM. And climbing at 2 PPM per year. Pagani, Hansen and their colleagues peg the Death of the Ice Sheets at 350 PPM. Ouch.

Thanksgiving may not seem the best time for gloom and doom. But Thanksgiving was yesterday.
Climate change is every day. Every decision. Every trip to Grandma's.

We are out of options and excuses. Do we want 13 million homeless and hungry Bangledeshees adding to India and China's political and social crises?

Or the extinction of polar bears?

Or, for that matter, rising stress on our own PNW forests, snow, and water resources?

Probably not.

But according to ten sterling researchers, these issues are now on the front porch, and the doorbell is ringing.

Are we there yet?
You betcha!

For the Science Daily page with this paper, see


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hope, Thanks and Dogs.

It's Thanksgiving morning, and here I am with my organic, shade grown, fair-trade coffee, organic, locally baked bread, starting this blog and wondering what to write. One dog is eye-ing me expectantly; two more have staked out the path to the car. There are big hopes here for the morning, the day. A long walk? A run? Rabbits?

Thanks? Well maybe. But to these three dogs, I'm just staff, and often pretty dumb staff at that. Bygones are bygones in a dog's life. It's all about living life to the full, Now, In The Moment. It's all about Hope.

Like my comrades, I have hopes today, too. The immediate one is how the heck to fix the (organic, locally grown) sweet potatoes and (organic) salad so they meet the taste expectations of the entire family--from the college student who has never met a vegetable she considers paletable, to me, a compulsive salad foodie who scarfs up every left-over, neglected lettace-leaf abandoned on other plates.

But there are other hopes beyond leaving no lettace-leaf in the compost.

There is the hope that we'll all have food enough to eat this year. And thanks for the bounty of years past. There's hope for health, and thanks that we've all survived so far. And there's hope for the salmon and sea lions, and thanks that we haven't blown up the planet so far.

Thanks and hope seem the yin and yang of human consiousness. One needs the other. One feeds the other. To envison a future, we must acknowledging the gifts of the universe, of love and kindness and nurture and wisdom. Sometimes, hope comes first. More salad. Longer walks. Today, it should be thanks, acknowledging the path that brought us here in the first place.

Outside, I hear soft woofing and here, at the desk, the Border collie has shifted into herding mode. Where's the leash?

And oh, yes.

Thanks for the dogs, too!