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Vol. 22 No. 3 - July 2016

Adapt or perish, says the Nature.

By: Dr. V.K. Joshi*

Till about half a decade ago, I used to write that the threat of the Global Warming is looming large. But now, the scenario is completely changed and it is no more a threat, rather we are grappling with one of the worst situations of our times. For us this may be something new, because in the past 100 years such a scenario had not occurred; but for the animals and plants it is nothing new. They know that if they have to survive, they have to adapt or they perish.

It was around 55.5 million years ago, our planet was undergoing worst global warming-termed as Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maxima or PETM in short. That was a period when the climatic vicissitudes were at its zenith. There were periods of extreme heat, extreme droughts and extreme rainfall. The brunt of the climate was faced by all. Fortunately, we were not there! The animals being closer to the nature, know how to survive. Many of the giants like elephants, horses, tigers, rhinoceros etc. managed to reduce their sizes to reduce the surface areas of their bodies exposed to the Sun. They still continue to live in the sizes reduced during the days of the yore. Alas, all were not so lucky, due to changes in the salinity of the oceans many oceanic fauna became extinct. Fortunately, the scenario was not that bad for the flora. It did thrive. Of course the onset of the Ice Age did impact the flora too.

Now once again, the life on the planet is threatened with dire consequences. Many of the living being like cockroaches, with a high sense of adaptability and omnivorous in food habits may wriggle out of the situation. But for the human being it is going to be rather tough.

Man is dependent on crops for food and if the climate is adverse the food supply is affected. Let us see how the situation has changed in the past five million years.

Since times immemorial, rather say since the day the hunter gatherer man became a cultivator, he began looking towards the skies for the rain or the sunshine. Till then, man was like a predator, killing animals for food. But once he became a cultivator, he began to play with the earth. Many a times he changed the landscape by hacking a forest to create a large farm. The more he began depending on the earth, more he started meddling with the nature and he started getting more rebuttals from the nature.

Researchers on the past climates studied them as they existed five million years ago to the contemporary period. They even created computer simulated models to predict the future climates. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel awardee of 1995, who unraveled the mechanisms that upset our ozone layers, has coined the term Anthropocene era for the present geological era of the Earth.

The reason for this nomenclature is simple as evident from the name Anthros which means human. This is an era of the earth dominated by us, the humans. But humans have been dominating the earth since quite some time. Hence there is a debate about the starting date of the Anthropocene era. Some say it should coincide with industrialization. But there are evidences of human interference on the ecosystem much before that. The conversion of man from hunter-gatherer to an agriculturist in the Neolithic period is said to be the beginning of the Anthropocene.

It seems ecological dis-balances began some 10,000 years ago. In other words it coincided with the retreat of the Ice Age. During that period many species of large mammals disappeared. Was it a climatic incident or human hand was there? The scientists do not deny the possibility of killing of those giants by the humans of the yore! It is believed that this mass killing by the humans affected the methane production. The mammoths that were predated were the largest methane producers. The dip in the methane levels in the atmosphere led to a Global chill.

These meat eaters advanced further as agriculturists and burnt acres and acres of forests. These forests were the carbon stores or carbon sinks for the excess atmospheric carbon. Instead, our ancestors converted them into carbon-dioxide producing fields. In a way, it was boon in disguise that the Global chill induced by their forefathers was stalled as the excess carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere generated warmth by creating green-house conditions. Bill Ruddiman of Virginia University, an ace climate scientist, on the basis of the study of the Ice Cores from Antarctica worked out the global enhancement of greenhouse gases and said that this increased the global temperatures by 0.8 degree Celsius.

Thomas Stocker, another climatologist produced contradictory evidence to prove that the initial warming by the Neolithic man was not possible. He said it was due to reactions by the carbon containing minerals in the oceans that finally released heavy amounts of carbon-dioxide to raise the levels of green-house gases.

However, this was all before the industrially and technologically evolved biped, the modern man came into existence. Once the smoke belching industries were set up and hydrocarbon fuel guzzling automobiles came into being, the scenario drastically changed. To compound the problem human beings have multiplied like insects. More numbers means the requirement of more food, more water, more roads, more vehicles…there is no end to this gargantuan list.

Thus, food and water security are at present foremost in the minds of the world leaders, than the territorial securities and expansions. The climate seems to have gone haywire. Countries like USA are facing fierce storms, vicious floods and heat or cold waves. Developing country like India is facing the crisis of floods and droughts, unprecedented winter rains and storms, humid and torrid summers. All these lead to more consumption of power, which ultimately burdens the atmosphere with more green-house gases.

Will it be lights out for the humans, like the other vanishing species of vertebrates? It seems as of today the extinction of vertebrates is 114 times faster than it used to be in the past 10000 years. We have polluted our world, hacked our forests and now in front of the Nature we are soft targets like the ‘walking dead.’

Are we going to survive the war with the Nature is a million dollar question.

*Ex Director, Northern Division, Geological Survey of India, Lucknow, India, E-mail - joshi.vijaykumar@gmail.com

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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