Regenerating life to cool Earth

OPINION

I have been captivated recently by a new way of looking at climate change. It’s positive and empowering and it makes scientific and intuitive sense. You could call it the “life cools the planet paradigm.” It is also referred to as the “land use leg of climate theory,” and the “living climate paradigm.”

In essence, this new paradigm is based on the observation that mature, intact ecosystems make a huge contribution to regulating the Earth’s climate. They do so by holding moisture in the landscape, seeding clouds, cycling water and storing carbon and water in the soil in a complex living matrix referred to as the soil carbon sponge.  Above: This mature Ottawa Valley forest ecosystem helps regulate the climate and cool the Earth. Photo: Grant Dobson

Trees and plants are continually moving large amounts of water from the soil to the atmosphere through transpiration. This cools the surrounding area by using incoming solar energy to evaporate the water and release it as water vapor. It is estimated that a typical tree transpires 100 litres of water each day with a cooling effect equal to two air conditioners running all day long. 

Imagine walking into a leafy green forest on a hot summer day. As you step into the woods, the air is cool and moist and you feel refreshed and rejuvenated. Part of the effect is due to shade, but transpiration and the water holding capacity of the soil carbon sponge underfoot are also important creators of this pleasant experience.  Now shift the scene to an asphalt parking lot full of cars on the same hot summer day and you get a hot, uncomfortable experience. 

The hot parking lot is a good example of how human land use practices are heating the planet. Without plants on the surface to absorb solar radiation, provide shade and cool the environment through transpiration, the incoming solar radiation that hits the bare, inanimate surfaces is converted into heat. 

Unfortunately humans have been creating bare, lifeless surfaces at a furious pace. It is estimated that 50 percent of the Earth’s surface has been altered by humans through deforestation, land clearing, draining of wetlands, industrial agriculture, road building, etc. Sadly therefore, we have lost 50 percent of the climate regulating services provided by intact ecosystems. No wonder the climate is askew. 

The good news is that we can turn our efforts to regenerating life, restoring forests, rebuilding the soil carbon sponge and bringing green native vegetation back to denuded landscapes. Positive results can be quick. 

There is a growing movement of people all over the world who are working energetically to restore ecosystems and watersheds. A worldwide transition to regenerative agriculture is underway. In Andhra Pradesh, India more than 800,000 farmers have recently transitioned to regenerative agriculture and the entire state may soon follow suit.

Here at home in the Ottawa Valley, there are things we can all do to regenerate ife. For example, we can re-green bare surfaces and diversify lawns with native plants. We can create mini wetlands and rain gardens on our property to harvest rain and retain water in the landscape. We can support ecological restoration efforts to restore wetlands and plant mini urban and backyard forests, also known as Miyawaki forests.

There is a great deal of sound science that supports the living climate paradigm. Scientists have been studying and writing about the ways climate is a product of living systems for decades. Two great starting points for learning more are the website, Biodiversity for a Liveable Climate, and the new film, Regenerating Life, that is available on Vimeo for streaming at home. The substack “The climate according to life” is also an excellent resource.

But what about fossil fuels and carbon dioxide you may be wondering. The “carbon dioxide leg of climate theory” has had the spotlight for decades now. Alas it only tells part of the story about what is causing global heating and climate disruption. 

There’s no question that there are several good reasons to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels but, in my view, the real exciting gains for humanity at this juncture lie in regenerating life on planet Earth. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it!

About the author: Lynn Jones is a founding member of theOttawa River Institute, a non-profit, charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley. ORI’s mission is to foster sustainable communities and ecological integrity in the Ottawa River watershed. 

2 Comments

  1. Eve-Marie Chamot

    Is that picture for real?:- it looks like a computer simulation from “Star Wars”:- too good to be true! Trees transpire water which converts sensible heat into latent heat but they also increase the humidity:- btw, 100 litres per day corresponds to ca 4mm to 7mm but our sandy soils store only about 25mm of water per foot so often the trees go thirsty in mid-summer. Native plants?:- ha!:- how about the rampant equisetum in my front yard and bryophytes towering to 4″ in back plus more rampant lichens and crab-grass? (and I’ve learned to love the crab-grass!) No poison ivy though, just some ginseng. For a quickie overview of carbon geochemistry look up “Carbon Cycle” on Wikipedia. I will leave a discussion of chlorophyll, rubisco (aka ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, I’m a real name-dropper!), and the quantum bio-chemistry of photosynthesis to another day.

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