Friday, December 10, 2010

Deep Time and Global Warming

It seems like yesterday we were under a foot of snow and early morning temperatures hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Today is the third day in a row that has been fairly warm and wet. The snow is nearly gone, frogs are chirping, and the earthworms are out wandering. On those zero degree days, the chit chat at the coffee shops is mostly mocking the idea of global warming. Today, it is easy for one to worry that we not get a real winter. We react emotionally to the short term. How short? It depends on the person. Having studied evolution, geology, and anthropology, I often think in terms of millions, if not billions, of years, even while reacting emotionally to day to day phenomena. If we look at Earth's history just since the arrival of Homo sapiens, say 100,000 years or so, we find many places that are densely populated with humans today have been uninhabitable in the past and vice versa. In the distant past, there were not so many humans dependent on what we now call "infrastructure." When the climate changed, it was feasible for humans to relocate. Thus, a substantial climate change might not have had such great consequences for humans as it would today. Consider, for instance, the millions who depend on the California Water Project, or the Hoover Dam. What we really have to look at is the rate of change in light of humans' ability to adapt. I'd say we, as a species, are in a bit of trouble, and global warming is "only the tip of the iceberg." That expression sounds weird in this context, doesn't it?
If we want to consider extremely deep time, say billions of years, we anticipate the sun burning out. Most humans cannot take in the idea of our history on the this planet having a beginning and an end, much less our individual lives having a beginning and an end. Thus enters religion.
I find it stimulating to look at things from the perspective of deep time as well as responding to short-term phenomena. The worms I photographed today apparently didn't "give up" during the recent cold snap. I wonder how deeply into the soil they crawled in order to avoid freezing. I wonder how many were not alert enough and therefore perished? They arose from the depths again today and seemed to be enjoying the asphalt in our school parking lot. And I doubt if they are worried about a thing. Click on each photo for a close-up view and a clever caption.

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