The Amy H Remley Foundation  

A Really Big Picture

Satellites orbiting the Earth have revealed so much of the environment in which we live. As we consider this really big picture we should recall what David Suzuki wrote in his 2009 essay, Betraying Nature.

“Nature does not operate in a vacuum. Interconnections among the various parts of the natural world are what actually drive it. When we pull it apart, we lose context, and that can mean everything.”

The Sun, 93 million miles away from us, radiates energy warming the Earth making it habitable for us to live here. Seen from a satellite in orbit 255 miles above the Earth its atmospheric gases scattering more of the blue light spectrum, appears as a blue layer of gases held in place by gravity, regulating the heat energy escaping back into space. The snow and ice of the North and South poles do manage to reflect much of the Sun's energy impinging upon them back into space, making those areas less hospitable for us. But, they nevertheless also perform ecological functions vital to our continued existence as the earth rotates daily and orbits the sun annually. About 78% of the atmosphere consists of Nitrogen and 21% Oxygen, both are vital to life on Earth and indeed are the product of billions of years of life on the Earth. Death and decay of the living biosphere over a period of billions of years has supplied the Nitrogen gas in the atmosphere today.

The sun's power in the atmosphere dramatically effects both the weather and the ecosystems. Every day some forty thousand thunder clouds form. Swirling winds buffet water vapor molecules against ice molecules from the freezing upper cloud levels causing the build up of static electricity. Lightning discharges occurs both within the cloud and to the ground or sea surface with such power that air molecules are simply torn apart. Nitrogen ions become separated and attach to oxygen ions to form nitrates. Dissolved in water droplets some 13,000 tons of soluble nitrates accumulate daily in the atmosphere, comprising the largest source of available nitrate fertilizer known to man and freely available as rains fall to earth as a component of the Nitrogen Cycle.

In addition, not only do air-to-ground lightning strikes spark millions of square miles of wildfires worldwide every year, accelerating the natural decay and the regeneration of the biosphere, but also discharges higher than any thunderclouds in the atmosphere await science to assess their impact upon ecosystems.

We know that too much exposure to the sun not only gives us a tan it may also damage our skin even promoting skin cancer. However, the sun's energy is a principal driver of environmental growth. Not only does it spur the growth of our skin cells, plant cells convert light energy by the process of photosynthesis into chemical energy. The light energy enables plant leaves to take in carbon dioxide and water vapor from the atmosphere to make sugar and emit oxygen back into the atmosphere for us to breathe. Chlorophyll, the green looking pigment, is involved in the process. It looks green because the red and blue light energy is absorbed for the photosynthesis so that we do not register them with our eyes.

Now, the sun radiates not only heat and light but masses of charged particles potentially capable of harming the Earth and living things like ourselves on it. In mid March 2013, NASA reported a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) erupting from the sun aimed towards Earth. Billions of tons of solar particles left the sun traveling at speeds up to 900 miles per second to trigger a geomagnetic storm as “space-weather”.

Our good fortune is that little of the particle radiation reached Earth because of its protective geomagnetic envelope out in space. Amounts of the radiation that may have penetrated that protective layer could have been trapped by Earth's own closer geomagnetic field which is the result of it having a large central molten magma mass. Nevertheless, a spectacular Aurora was observed from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska on March 17, 2013.

One Earth-bound phenomena of the sun's power and the tropical storms it causes off of the West Coast of Africa originates with the Sahara Desert far inland. Its Bodele Depression in the Sahel region is the remains of the Lake Megachad formed thousands of years ago and occupying some 24,000 square miles. The lake bottom accumulated tons of phytoplankton as diatomic depositions rich in calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus.

Starved of rainfall and subjected to winds from Western Sudan and Chad over many a millennium, lake waters have evaporated leaving behind diatomite flakes in abundance. As strong east-to-west winds funnel in season between the mountain ranges to the North and South the flakes are whipped up and fracture into a fine white dust to be carried aloft in a swath 200 miles wide and 100 stories high from where they are lifted high among the rising cloud masses of the Atlantic Ocean. Tropical storm systems convey the dust particles rich with nutrients to fertilize the Amazon rain forests which typically have depleted soils in which to grow. The greening of the jungles are visible from space at the end of each rainy season.

Although the Amazon produces one fifth of all oxygen consumed worldwide; we breathe it, it fuels our metabolism, a fifth of the oxygen we use feeds our brain and half of all living species live in the Amazon, almost all oxygen produced in the Amazon is reabsorbed by it during the night. However, during its 4,000 mile passage, nutrients collected and delivered to the sea by its rivers give birth to phytoplankton that die elsewhere to release half the oxygen we humans need.

But how did the diatomic deposits get into the Bodele Depression in the first place? For the answer we need to consider the role of the polar ice caps. In Antarctica, for example, a circumpolar current draws heat away from the polar regions causing sea water temperatures to fall during the winter months, the warming effects of the sun having by then receded northwards. When sea temperature falls below 29 degrees, ocean water freezes. As it freezes ice spreads outward from the land mass until it exceeds the size of the African continent. In the area of the Weddell Sea its solidifying mass of ice exudes crystallized salt. As the more dense fluid, the brine waters sink giving rise to an extraordinary phenomena revealed by satellite imagery.

Such is the accuracy of the imagery, at the surface it can discern a chasm under the sea two miles deep into which the brine sinks as a giant under sea waterfall 500 times the size of Niagara. The cold brine flows guided by the chasm, following the coastal shape of South America mixes with other deep ocean currents helping to stabilize ocean temperatures and saltiness throughout the oceans of the world.

Other ocean currents deep in the South Pacific ocean collect nutrients including iron and sulphur released by hydrothermal vents deep undersea as the cold waters interact chemically with releases of molten magma and gases from the Earth's interior. Circulations of ocean currents eventually enrich the ocean seas worldwide. Satellites track the spread of nutrients by reporting subtle changes in water color. Phytoplankton form near the surface of the rich ocean soup taking in the sun's energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In a single day an area of 500 square miles of greening by photosynthesis of a bloom can be observed from space. The Bodele Depression was once such a body of water collecting expired phytoplankton in its depths.

The phytoplankton blooms are keys to life, although persisting only a matter of two or three days before dying and sinking back into the depths, taking their nutrients with them, they accumulate over geologic time up to half a mile deep. Living, they begin the marine food web feeding anchovies, sardines, and krill which in turn are devoured by predators and then by humans. In rainfall they enrich plants and the soil of the Earth itself.

The paradox is of course that these phenomena only become apparent to us as scientific satellites have allowed us to view our environment from afar: the closer our point of observation is within the environment the more difficult it is, as David Suzuki has warned us, to decide issues preserving the environment and avoiding its destruction.

As the writer I am grateful indeed to WEDU, PBS television service for their production of Earth From Space which I was privileged to watch and have its spectacular images etched on my mind as inspiration to compose these few somewhat inadequate paragraphs for you the reader.

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