Could the people of planet Earth have recently become the guests who overstayed their welcome? Over-population, pollution of the air, land and sea, destruction of the protective ozone layer, and finally the threat to the oxygen balance in the atmosphere, it seems, have long tried the patience of a living planet. If the beginning of the new century is a sign, Mother Earth may not be happy with the bad behavior. In fact, she might be downright angry.
Tsunamis, hurricanes of Biblical proportion, flooded cities, Mad-Cow Disease, Avian flu, AIDS and melting ice caps do not bode well for the near future. And, it turns out, this may not be the first time mankind paid a heavy price for its home on earth.
Plato’s tale of Atlantis depicts the visit of the Greek lawmaker Solon to the priests at Sais in Egypt. There the wise Solon is admonished. “Oh Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are but children.” When he asks why they would say that, he is told of the numerous catastrophes recorded in their archive, of which the Greeks know nothing. Worldwide conflagrations, flood survived only by those who fled to the mountains, pestilence that claimed even whole cities.
In terms of geology, major climactic changes, the movement of tectonic plates, seas that turn into deserts, and plains that turn into oceans take long periods of time. They do, however, happen and we must ask: Are we entering a critical phase in the process?
Politics aside, few can disagree that planet Earth is heating up and that this appears to be creating problems. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and, most recently, Wilma, escalated to Category Five levels because of one thing: water temperature. The water temperature of the Gulf of Mexico rose from an average eighty degrees to a torrid ninety degrees this summer. To a hurricane, warm water is fuel, and both Katrina and Rita reached epic levels because of it.
The warm Gulf waters, however, are just a small part of the global picture. Five years ago we began to see the first of the mega icebergs. From Greenland to Antarctica, icebergs the size of Rhode Island, 1000 square miles, began breaking off shelf ice and heading out to sea. Recently, one such iceberg was the size of Jamaica. This 4000-squaremile monster began floating to a warmer climate. It was named B15 and before it began to break up, it denied access to the sea near the Ross Ice Shelf and was responsible for the deaths of millions of penguins.
In Alaska, the Columbia glacier is melting at a rate of one mile every two years. While it doesn’t sound alarming, it and other melting glaciers are causing the permafrost that covers much of the state to turn to mush. Roads crack and become broken, telephone poles tilt and fall, and even buildings twist as underground ice melts. Fairbanks has had a summer that included three weeks of eighty degrees plus.
It doesn’t help the tourist industry either as cruise ships cannot get close to this fantastic glacier, as a sea of broken ice keeps them away. Once beautiful forests sink into newly formed swamps creating a phenomena called the “drunken forest.” Half of Alaska’s white spruce may be gone in fifteen years.
The western Arctic is at times twenty-five degrees higher than the average temperature of the last hundred years. This has caused salmon to swim out to sea and species of flora and fauna to disappear, or appear. For the first time in modern history, mosquitoes are able to survive in polar regions. Immigrant spruce bark beetles have invaded the taiga of Siberia, which is also losing its forest cover as the warmer air stunts tree growth.
In Greenland the Arctic sea ice has diminished by nearly 400,000 square miles in thirty years. The Sermeq glacier was shrinking at a rate of four miles per year in 1967, and is now shrinking at twice that rate. Native Inuit people have a shortened fishing and sealing season. Polar bears, depending on the sea ice for breeding and foraging, may see diminished numbers. In Northern Finland, a newer species of plantlife has found the far north more habitable. This is leading to suffocation of the plants that reindeer feed on.
Ancient texts are replete with horrific destruction from heat and fire. The blame is generally put on God who destroys cities like Sodom and Gomorrah for their sinfulness. The destruction is also credited to gods whose weapons have the power to scorch the universe. The Mahabarata of ancient India recalls when such a war “rained down death.” “The heavens cried out, the earth bellowed an answer. Lightning flashed forth, fire flamed upward.” Such hellish scenarios are seen in fires in the west where overuse of water combined with dry climate and extended heat waves burn thousands of acres in places like Southern California. Even without fire, heat alone has taken its toll. A summer heat wave in 1995 took the lives of seven hundred Americans, mostly in Chicago. In 2003, a European heat wave claimed the lives of ten thousand, mostly elderly French citizens.
The Mayans have suggested that the world was already destroyed four times. Fire, flood, and attacks by jaguars have all brought an end to the world and a new beginning. We are now, however, at the end of the fifth world. Each is measured in baktuns, Our civilization, it is said, will end at the end of the thirteenth baktun, which is not too far in the future. This epoch started on August 13, 3114 B.C. with the rising of Venus. It ends on the winter solstice, December 23, 2012. They left us with a date, but no clue to the cause. For this we can only guess.
Those alarmed by global warming point to the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This level was steady until 1850 when the industrial age began. Between 1950 and 2005 the increase was huge and steady. And it is getting worse. The further growth will come from the NICs, the “Newly Industrialized Countries,” where gas and oil fuel transportation for millions that did not have access to automobiles before.
While it may be easy to blame the American consumer’s addiction to fossil fuels and fluorocarbons, it is not the only reason the earth is warming up. Every day more roads are built, more buildings erected, and concrete and asphalt cover more of the earth’s surface. From the Amazon to the coast of China a worldwide explosion of construction is matched only by the population growth. Asphalt retains heat and causes the temperature to rise.
Cities have their own weather caused by artificial means. Concrete, asphalt and brick take the heat of the sun and retain it longer. They become storage units that only gradually give up their heat. The sun’s heat is only half of the story. Waste heat, from auto emissions, central heating, industry, and power stations add to the mix. They create a dome of heat that hovers over a city. The city of Philadelphia can typically exceed the local highs by ten degrees. The effect of a city’s heat can stretch ten to fifteen miles outside the city.
Some cities even get larger increases in annual rainfall than areas just outside the city. But in winter, these areas get rid of their snow faster than the suburbs. Great American population centers are increasingly dwarfed as new population centers like Beijing, Shanghai, Manila, Mexico City, Mumbai, Dhaka and Tokyo grow.
It just may be that in addition to millions of square miles of asphalt, there is one other component to a changing earth. Us.
In 1650, Mother Earth played host to an estimated 470 million people. She now has to contend with 6.4 billion crowding her surface. Population experts expect the current growth rate of 1.5% to slow to 1.1%, but even if such a huge reduction does take place they estimate that 9 billion people will cling to the earth’s surface before 2050. Some believe that could be a problem.
There is a growing theory that the earth, or Gaia, is a living thing. The argument of biology against geology is not accepted by most, but has its merits. The Gaia Hypothesis is a belief that the planet has a physical and biologic process that requires a self-regulating system to keep a balance. All living things contain their vital organs at the core, their expendable organs at the surface. People live on that expendable surface and on occasion become redundant.
A Greek epic poem, The Kypria, said “There was a time when thousands upon thousands of men encumbered the broad bosom of the Earth.” To lighten her burden, Zeus created war that “he might make a void in the race of man.” Man was upsetting the balance.
People, animals, plantlife, lakes, and oceans all exhibit this need for balance to survive. High acidity in a lake, too many toxins ingested by plants, harmful pollution surrounding man, all can create an unbalance that leads to illness and possibly death.
Humans, animals and plants all either correct the problem or suffer the consequences.
Nine billion people burning more gasoline, emitting more carbon monoxide, may be more than a living planet can handle. It may be a problem the earth has to solve to survive. At some point, like a snake shedding an old skin, Mother Earth may need to shuck off the accumulated hide of cement, brick and asphalt, along with the billions that crowd her surface. Tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, disease and killer hurricanes may not be the worst.
To be reborn, the planet might relive its first billion years, a time when, it is believed, the surface had hellish volcanic upheavals, burning constantly, with hydrogen consuming oxygen to produce the water which then gave life. In this period, living things hid under water from the sun until they assisted in creating an atmosphere by consuming excess oxygen and stabilizing its level.
Scientists that debate the Gaia Hypothesis say the world may have had four catastrophes that might have been total destruction. Geologists, even those who do not agree with the idea of a “living” earth, agree that as many as one hundred catastrophes might have happened that eliminated 90% of earth’s living things.
If this is true, we might take comfort from the fact that it occurred in a 4.5 billion year period that both modern science and the Brahmin calendar agree is the age of the earth. This means a near-total catastrophe occurs on average, every 45 million years. But before we get too comfortable, we must consider that the all-critical oxygen balance is now being threatened. Can a global catastrophe be in store?
National Geographic was considered to be taking an alarmist position when it highlighted the dangers of rising water levels and specifically the threat to New Orleans last year. The warning became a reality. Scientists now predict at the current rate of melting polar ice, the world’s sea level could rise by twenty three feet before 2100. Rising water levels do not happen gradually; instead they happen in fits and starts. What global catastrophe caused the Black Sea to go from fresh water to saltwater? We can only guess or accept tales of Noah to explain. The breaching of the levees in New Orleans is a modern example.
Flooding due to greater water levels is one threat. With most of the world’s largest cities bordering oceans, the effect of a large rise in sea levels can be catastrophic. Cities from New York to Miami are built at sea level. Scores of smaller cities from Atlantic City to St. Augustine hide behind a thin barrier that can disappear overnight. The maps of sand bars off the coast of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod change nearly every summer. The same might happen to North Carolina’s Outer Banks by mid-century.
It could be much worse. The Sanskrit Mahabharata describes a split in the earth causing the drowning of sixty million people in one night. The Mayan land of Mu was said to suffer two upheavals in one night before it disappeared. Atlantis suffered a similar fate. Genesis has the springs of the abyss breaking through to flood the earth. The Celtic tales are similarly dramatic with The City of the Y’s and the forests of Cornwall becoming submerged as a result of floods.
The world has no shortage of historical flood stories. In 2004, the Asian tsunami, added a new story to modern mythology claiming over 200,000 lives and leaving possibly 100,000 people unaccounted for.
Sumerian texts blame Indra, a god whose name meant “Storm” for massive loss of life. The Hittites blamed Teshub, meaning “Windy Storm” for the same. The evil Seth was “Typhon” in Greek meaning “Fierce Wind.” Such wind-caused catastrophes left cities in desolation according to the Lamentation Texts of the Sumerians. And when such storms passed, they left sickness, the fear in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Not understanding cholera and plague, the ancients believed such invisible death was brought by ghosts who stayed beyond the destruction.
“When it enters a house, its appearance is unknown” says one text. Before it leaves “mouths were drenched in blood…the face was made pale,” death and desolation courtesy of angry gods.
Storms, floods, and any catastrophe that forces many to move, causes and spreads disease to move as well. Plague in the fourteenth century caused many major cities to lose 20 to 40% of their population. In smaller places, like Trapani on Sicily, there were no people left. Thus a desolation as complete as in Sumerian texts which describe the horror. “No one treads the highways, no one seeks out the roads.”