The human body makes for an appealing metaphor when talking about the planet's ecosystems. We're all more-or-less familiar with the workings of our bodies, and know, at least in broad terms, what kinds of threats are potentially fatal and what kinds are potentially painful but survivable. There's a risk of going too far, though, and either stretching the metaphor past the point of real science (e.g., referring to the Amazon rain forest as the "lungs of the planet") or being a bit haphazard with how the various metaphorical body parts fit together (e.g., James Lovelock's use of bodily analogies in his recent bit of apocaphilia). So when I saw the announcement that a collection of respected planetary scientists -- including WorldChanging friend Dr. Jon Foley -- would be discussing the "Vital Organs in the Earth System" at last week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I was a bit worried.
Fortunately, the "vital organs" metaphor was used sparingly, but quite appropriately:
There is a growing awareness that the Earth, like the human body, operates as a complex, coupled system. This has led to the concept of "vital organs "or "hotspots," i.e. components, processes or regions that help regulate the functioning of the entire planet. Many of them are sensitive to human influences and all have the potential to reach critical thresholds that, once tipped, could lead to large-scale, abrupt changes.
What are these hotspots? The researchers -- all part of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program -- focus on some all-too-familiar subjects: Amazon deforestation and biodiversity loss; the shrinking West Antarctic ice sheet; the slowdown of the North Atlantic current; and ocean acidification. Each is a geophysical system or feature that faces radical changes from global warming, with global effects.
If the symposium was just another warning cry that we're putting our civilization at risk, the material -- while interesting -- wouldn't be all that worldchanging. But the IGBP researchers use this material to discuss two ways of grappling with the subject of climate disruption: Berrien Moore III of the Institute for the Study of Earth Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire talks about the latest generation of Earth System models, which have a particular focus on cross-system feedback effects; and our own Jon Foley, of the University of Wisconsin's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, looks at possible solutions, including such worldchanging ideas as smart agriculture, "ecosystem services," and green cities.
Perhaps most importantly, Jon presented the new Earth Collaboratory, a web site intended to link global environmental scientists and local experts from around the world. The Earth Collaboratory is exactly what a worldchanging environmental knowledge tool should look like: global, distributed, bottom-up, and focused on the combination of good science and regional relevance:
...The Earth Collaboratory builds on new collaborative Internet-based technologies (e.g., Google Earth, Wikipedia) to bridge global and place-based science and connect experts and citizens.
The prototype Earth Collaboratory focuses on tropical deforestation and subsequent land use practices. By querying local experts, we hope to achieve a level of “ground-truth” for global maps of tropical deforestation, revise the data set, and incorporate and share place-based data sets that will dramatically enrich the data content and provide a genuine exchange of ideas of how deforestation is manifest from both global and local perspectives. Regional networks of experts will provide a minimal level of editorial oversight. This prototype will serve as a test-bed for new project ideas, including establishing global-to-local collaborative networks for detecting emerging diseases, changing patterns of agricultural land use, shifts in climate and ecological patterns, and changes in biodiversity.
The Earth Collaboratory isn't open yet, but is expected to be in operation by this Spring. You can be sure that when it's up and running, we'll get Jon to tell us everything about the Collaboratory and the prospects for participatory Earth science.
Indeed, a good idea to make the link between global and local data and knowledge. But only working if it is feeded by enough local contributors.
As someone who cares a lot about life on earth, I have long thought that activists should be talking about planetary health (or some such phrase), the need for which is self-evident, instead of "the environment," which has no emotional value. It's good to see I'm not alone. Please keep us posted on this thoughtful new initiative.
Thanks, Jamais, for covering this.
The AAAS conference attempted to provide a summary of the "state of the planet", by bringing together experts on several key issues. The presentations on ocean acidification (CO2 is not only a greenhouse gas, but it also makes the oceans more acidic, and thereby making it harder for some organisms that depend on calcium carbonate), and the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation, in particular, were amazing.
I presented a review of global environmental issues tied to land use. Instead of focusing entirely on the "problems", I also tried to show some of the opportunities that we have. Although we only had about 18-20 minutes, so it's hard to get very far in that amount of time!
By the way, we are still working on building the foundation of the Earth Collaboratory, and it may be several more months before it's ready to show. But when it is, you can be sure that WorldChanging folks will be the first to know!
Once we get a little farther along, I'll send some notes along. At this point, we're trying to build a new web interface (similar to the key features of Google Earth, but much faster and easier to use -- especially for slow connections in developing countries) and establish some core content. We will also be looking at some fundraising efforts pretty soon, once we have a product we can show off a little more. Stay tuned.