Environment, Climate, Humans, Change….

January was cold and grey in Germany. Despite it gave me a bit of fire to dare and challenge some thinking on global changes. Hopefully inspirational… Trying to maybe put the world as we know it into perspective.

Our ancestors in the Ice Age
A few weekends ago, I visited the LVR (Landschaftsverband Rheinland) museum in Bonn, which is currently showing an exhibition on humans living during the final countdown of the last Glacial Maximum, some 15,000 years ago. It gave an amazing picture on the totally different world in Western Europe, compared to what we are used to in the 21st century. Our current forested and agricultural land was a vast savannah, with gigantic animals roaming it.  The human population was less than 10,000 souls and thus had enough food. We wandered around over the floor of the North Sea, where enormous paleo-rivers bursted bewildered over the landscape. However, climate change forced the sea level to rise dramatically, increasing temperatures and rainfall (the 6 degrees lower temperatures fixed much of the available moisture in ice caps). The climate change process made the Europe suitable for forests and thriving plant communities. People gradually became the architects of their surrounding landscape.

Human architects…
A few days later I went to a lecture on the effects of climate change, organised by the Frankfurter Geographische Gesellschaft. My supervisor, Prof. Hickler spoke on the effects related to biodiversity and ecosystems. The IPCC report on the devastating amounts of carbon and other pollutants pushed into the atmosphere was one part. Another part was on the physical effect of human being on the landscape. It reminded me of a recent study, stating that Europe nowadays has more forest than a century ago. In Europe, massive deforestation occurred a few centuries ago, when instead of oil, wood was used as fuel. The landscape was being exhausted and clearcut, something which is happening currently in some tropical countries. The whole ecosystem changed dramatically and large mammals disappeared.

Tropical forests in the climate change century
The two stories came together while reading a somewhat outdated textbook, titled ‘Tropical Forest in Transition’, edited by Johann Goldammer in 1992. This book makes clear that the stable status of tropical rainforest is a fairytale. We want to believe the large Amazon forest has always existed the way we know it nowadays. This is simply not the truth. Climatic changes were not restricted to the Northern latitudes. Incursions of drier savannah landscapes in the transitional forest of the Amazon happened regular and rainforests got a patchy occurrence. Refugia of tropical species surely existed during the ice ages and from here the rainforest developed to its large extent. These refugia could have existed in secluded river catchment, compared to the subtropical forests we find today. Rainforests always existed, but altered. They had to survive paleo-Indians setting fire and huge paleo-El Nino events roaring around the region. The rainforest resided.

Gedankenexperiment
The visit to the LVR-Museum, the lecture of the FGG and the insights from Goldammer let me to the following:

  • In the past, climate change has drastically altered the landscape in Northern latitudes, changing a savannah with mega-fauna into a forest without mega-fauna.
  • In the past, humans have drastically altered the landscape in Northern latitudes, deforesting an enormous area, resulting in a destruction of ecosystems.
  • Although tropical forests seem to be relatively stable, it is also subject to frequent environmental changes, showing stages of a more open and patchy landscapes.
  • Currently, we push such large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere that the temperature rises more than the ice age fluctuation.
  • Currently, we are deforesting large extents of forest, similar (and more) to the deforestation in the Northern latitude.
  • Therefore, we can expect alterations in the tropical regions. We probably see ecosystems, which are common today, pushed into refugia, while others take over. This might force us to change our living standards and think once again carefully about system earth we live on.

PaleoTemp

The geological temperature fluctuations according to the wikipedia site for ‘Geologic Temperature Trend’ (Glen Fergus)

http://www.landesmuseum-bonn.lvr.de
http://www.wageningenur.nl/en/newsarticle/Europe-greener-than-100-years-ago.htm

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