01. Earth: Our Home

We are ‘glued’ to a huge sphere by gravity, protected by a 62 mile (100 km) ‘blanket’ of particles that we call ‘our atmosphere’.  We orbit one of the billions of stars in our galaxy, which is one galaxy among billions of others in, perhaps, just one of many universes out there.

There are many ‘worlds’ in our solar system; some full of ice, some full of volcanoes.  So far, and within a very short period of time, there have been around 2000 planets identified outside of our solar system, many light years away, and none seem to possess such characteristics as ours.  It’s hard to tell though, as these worlds are too far away to know that much about them so soon.  At least in our solar system, Earth is indeed unique, a word that doesn’t do justice for such a complex world that we inhabit.

In a four-part series, starting with this one, we will showcase some extraordinary features of our sphere, our planet, our world, our home.  If we can realize just how incredibly lucky we are to inhabit this place, and how devastating an effect it will be if we are not careful with how we manage things here, our drive to make our human society smarter, in order to further explore, protect and truly enjoy this world, will increase exponentially.  I dare to say ‘our’ world, because we have to understand that if we cause changes to the global ecosystem, we could easily perish as a species.  This is why we have to be very careful about how we live, explore, and thrive.

In this first article, we will try to understand the concept of ‘home’.  Why Earth is ‘our home’, and why it is so important.

Picture lobsters at the bottom of the ocean, crawling in an environment consisting of water (plus so many other things and creatures in it).  They are protected by an average of 2-3 miles (4-5 km) of water around and above them.  If we compare our world experience with theirs, there are many similarities.  Many tons of water press down on those lobsters, just as the planet’s gaseous atmosphere does on us.  At sea level, the air pressure on your body is like a small car standing on your head and your shoulders.  There are currents in the water, as well as in the atmosphere, and both shape the landscape on land or ocean.  Even the clouds that we are so familiar with, seem similar to waves viewed from below the surface of the water.

We ‘crawl’ on land, similar to how lobsters ‘walk’ at the bottom of the ocean.  Also within these environments, some animals move in ways that we describe as ‘flying’ or ‘swimming’, although there seems to be little difference.

If a lobster comes out of the water, it can survive for a couple of days, after which it will suffocate.  A lobster can extract oxygen from the air, but in order to do this, its gills must be kept moist or they will collapse.  The lobster’s ‘home’ is in the ocean.

If we were to take a different animal from the water environment, let’s say a blue whale, and bring it to our land environment, the whale will only survive for a matter of minutes (maybe hours).  Its body is so massive that being out of water will crush many of its internal organs.

A jellyfish on land looks nothing like a jellyfish in the water, not to mention that it’s not alive anymore.  Check out this video of an octopus crawling onto a shore.  Notice how oddly this animal moves in a different environment than his own, not to mention that this one would also have died if it spent too much time outside of his own environment.

If you want to take a fish out of the ocean, you have to put it in a water tank and feed it with proper fish food.  However, that is not all that’s needed to keep that fish alive.  You need to constantly recycle & clean the water so that dangerous chemicals (toxic for the fish) won’t kill it.  The temperature of the water is also crucial.  Allow it to get too hot or too cold and the fish will not be able to survive.

Now let’s think of us human beings.  If we go out into space, outside of our atmosphere, we will only last for about 90 seconds.  Remember that ‘car’ that pressures down on your head and shoulders?  Well, there is none out in space and, because of this lack of pressure, our body fluids will boil, transforming from liquids to gas.  We can’t breath, either, due to the lack of oxygen in space.  Overall, our internal organs will expand and we will start to look nothing like a human being.  A ‘stiff’ dead bunch of frozen cells in space.(source)

For us to go into space, as in the case of the fish, we need to take our environment with us.  From the lack of elements that we need to survive, to the high concentration of cosmic rays that are deadly to us and no longer being shielded by Earth’s atmosphere, and the very low temperatures in space, just to name a few, we humans do not belong there, just as the fish doesn’t belong on land.  Who knows how we might learn to manipulate our biology in the future, but for now, we are still Earth-bound creatures.  The International Space Station serves as an ‘aquarium’ example of how humans can live outside of our natural environment, but they are very limited in their general comfort, what they can do, how many can stay there, and for how long, and they obviously have to constantly receive vital resources from Earth just to keep them alive.

Luckily for us, we can walk around on Earth without hardly any protection.  We may need some clothes where is too cold for our tolerances, some slippers where is too sharp to walk, some sun protection where it’s too sunny or too hot, and some ‘medicine’ where there is a risk of a disease.  Generally speaking, we can walk around on this planet without a problem, but we don’t seem to appreciate that enough.

It’s also true that there are many places ‘on’ this planet where we have to bring ‘our’ environment with us again: we need a water-tight submersible or scuba diving gear to go into the fish’s world, oxygen and mountain/snow gear if we choose to climb tall mountains or visit the Earth’s poles or certain caves, and other equipment when we explore environments that are ‘extreme’ for our physiology.  Those places tend to be rare for our needs.

However, we should keep in mind that if we were to not use ‘technology’ at all, our lives would look nothing like today.  However naturally suited this world is for us, without proper technology and systems to combat diseases or predators, or to provide billions of us with food, potable water and care for our basic needs, it would be a huge challenge for our species to survive, as it was for our more ancient ancestors.  The balance between this suited ‘home’ and the modern lifestyle we need to progress as a species, must be carefully understood and managed.

Going back to how lucky we are to be inhabiting this sphere, we must understand that there is no other planet in our solar system where we can settle and continue to develop as we can here – nowhere near it.  Mars lacks the air pressure needed to hold water on its surface; it has no magnetic field, so it cannot protect us from solar wind radiation; it lacks most of the resources we have on Earth; not to mention the long and dangerous trip there.  How would we move billions of people to Mars, plus everything else that we would require in order to even have a chance to recover there?  Maybe Mars will become a second ‘home’ in the distant future, but it pales in comparison to the possibilities that Earth offers us: from the complexity of life, the atmosphere and the magnetic shield, to the many landscapes from which we still have so much to learn from, or the richness of resources that exist here.  Living on Mars is like living in the desert, but with a ‘high’ temperature of -10 degrees Fahrenheit (-23 degrees Celsius) during the day, nearly trapped inside specially designed buildings that, you can only hope with all of your knowledge, will protect you from all deadly cosmic rays and provide you with enough of the necessities of life to survive.  Of course, if you want go outside, you’ll have to wear a special, quite bulky suit.  Well, that’s Mars.(source)

The other planets are not only much further away, but are completely uninhabitable for humans: from planets full of volcanoes and temperatures of hundreds of degrees, to extreme pressures and gravitational forces, or storms with winds of thousands of miles per hour.  Now think of Earth again.

But Earth wasn’t always like it is now.  It was a world of volcanoes at one point, bombarded by asteroids at another, nearly frozen for several periods, and so on.  99% of all species that have ever existed here are extinct.  Dinosaurs went extinct, not because an asteroid killed them all like a bowling ball knocks over pins, but because the impact flooded the atmosphere with heavy particles (many of them toxic), blocking the planet’s ability to reflect sunlight back out into space, which significantly raised Earth’s ‘aquarium’s’ temperature, thus leading to a very poor environment for many species of animals and plants.  Some species survived, but many (like the dinosaurs) died.  Millions of years later, it just so happened that, among all the DNA mutations, some with ‘human’ characteristics developed and, encouraged by proper circumstances (a suitable environment), it eventually evolved into what we are today.  This is why this planet seems so well-suited for us, while in fact, it’s really the other way around: we are here only because conditions have, so far, allowed for that.

We are indeed much like the fish in the ocean, and our very existence depends on so many inter-related things in our environment.  A big problem with this emerges when this delicate balance is disturbed and unpredictable chain reactions occur.  An asteroid can trigger such a chain of reactions.  We’re now learning that pumping massive amounts of formerly buried CO2 back into the atmosphere from our heavily industrialized and profit-based approach also brings about significant chain reactions in the climate.  The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped to the planet, and that brings about many side effects.

For instance, the seasonal changes that we experience every year are almost non-existent at a cosmic scale, and even at the Earth scale.  It gets hot in the summer, but the main side effect that people from developed tribes may experience is a relatively slight discomfort and maybe a sunburn.  Of course, an air conditioner plus some sunscreen will solve those problems.  In the winter, even the poorest of humans can survive with a few extra clothes, and when it rains anytime of year, you might get soaked.

These changes in weather are quite minute, while clothes, buildings and medicines can help us readily deal with them.  On the other hand, when global chains of reactions occur that can destabilize our ‘well-suited’ environment, and if we find ourselves unable to control them, this environment can become quickly and severely uninhabitable for people (and most other lifeforms).  We might think that a slight increase in the average climate patterns that we are used to is no big deal.  Maybe slightly hotter summers?; maybe some more rains?; occasionally stronger storms, perhaps?  We can deal with those, right?  Well, there are far more dangerous implications than that.

A tiny change, like a global rising temperature of about 4.7 to 8.6 °F (2.6 to 4.8 °C), which is predicted to happen in the lifetime of many of us, if we continue to live as we do today, is expected to trigger massive changes that us humans may not be able to reverse, such as: significant rising of sea level, heating of the oceans beyond what most ocean life can endure, severe scarcity of freshwater, massive droughts, stronger storms affecting agriculture & overall human life and, most importantly, these changes will affect the entire ecosystem (the full ‘aquarium’ environment) in ways that spread like wildfire.  We may not directly feel it very much at first, but as entire populations of organisms on this planet start to diminish, or even disappear, it may not be reversible before we join them.

Take phytoplankton.  These are tiny creatures.  Many of them cannot be seen with the naked eye, but there are so many that when they are clustered together, they can be seen from space.  These tiny creatures consume carbon dioxide (CO2) on a scale equivalent to forests and other land plants.(source)  Even a slight drop in their growth, which is predicted due to the effects of climate change on the ocean environment, will have a big impact on the climate, since CO2 is one of the main gases that trap heat to the planet, which then leads this climate change in the first place.  This effect is called a positive feedback loop.  The drop in phytoplankton population, and thus their lessened ability to absorb as much CO2, will then accelerate climate change, which will then lower their population even more, along with their ability to absorb CO2.

It’s not only the effect on atmospheric CO2 levels that the tragic death of these tiny creatures will negatively affect.  Phytoplankton is also the main source of food for many of the ocean’s other creatures.  Large populations of fish in the ocean can perish if the phytoplankton population diminishes too far, and human populations can diminish if those fish perish, as many of them provide an important source of human food.

If you didn’t before, perhaps now you’re beginning to realize the immense scale of chain reactions that can occur by only warming the global climate by a few degrees, and this example is just one of the billions of such changes that can occur due to a single factor such as climate change.  Volcanic eruptions and strong solar storms can also equate to destabilization of Earth’s environment.

We humans are even more sensitive to such changes, especially if we want to live a highly technologized life.  Environmental changes can trigger chains of reactions in human societies as well.  For instance, the scarcity of an important resource (e.g. fresh water) can inspire violent conflicts over access and reduce our technological capability to maintain and progress our agricultural capacities, and thus bring about our inability to feed so many billions of people.  We humans are acutely vulnerable to disastrous consequences if the environment that we are accustomed to changes too much.

This climate change (global warming) scenario, which is deduced by most related scientific studies to already be happening, has so many effects on so many Earth systems that are inextricably connected that it is near to impossible to accuracy predict what will happen.  One thing is certain: our global climate is changing!

Dinosaurs had no idea what an asteroid is or what their place is in the Universe.  Humans have a good understanding of these dangers, which is why we have to act like that.  If an astronaut on the international space station performs an experiment that releases toxic gases into the station, he immediately recognizes that the effects will not only affect him, but the others as well, since they are all in a closed system.  If your roommate pissed you off and you burn his bed to keep him from coming back to the room anymore, you also end up burning your own bed, since fire devours everything in its path, not recognizing any difference between your roommate’s bed, your bed, or anything else, as it destroys the entire room (and likely, more beyond it).  It seems that most people understand that, perhaps due to the fact that these kinds of effects are immediate.

The serious lack of scientific knowledge among most human beings, coupled with the abundance of monetary profit motives in our society, pose a direct danger to our ‘aquarium’.  Perhaps a better understanding among people of our direct connection with the Earth and its complex global ecosystem can lead us to a different way of thinking in regards to how we act.

There are many poetries and sentimental ideas/movements that describe our connection with the Earth.  But science, as we have briefly shown, is far more powerful and no doubt much more important in showing us that connection.

We cannot forget that this is ‘our’ stewardship of the world that we’re talking about here.  Planet Earth has existed for some 4.5 billion years.  We, for only a tiny fraction of that.  Our existence, and the environment that allows for our existence, is like a single frame in a years-long movie.  Therefore, if we want to survive (and thrive), our goal must be to maintain this state of environment for as many of those frames as possible.  There is no “let’s save planet Earth”, because the planet needs no saving.  We do!

I hope you understand now why Earth is our home: because for one there is no better planet to go to, and second, from the atmosphere to resources, organisms and climate, this sphere is a marvel of complexity and opportunity for us humans and all other living things.

In the three articles to follow, we will introduce you to some of the most amazing places on the planet, the most complex organisms known and some of the most fascinating events ever studied.  Until then, …


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