Sunday, January 13, 2013

Record keeping in nature

Geek alert!  You've been warned.

Did you know that nature keeps records?  If you know where and how to look, you can look into the planet's past and see a great deal of what has come before.  This totally amazes me and makes me marvel at the processes of this universe we live in.

Tree rings are like the short term memory of an ecosystem.  They record the weather of the seasons over years, sometimes stretching as far back as millennia   Each season lays down a fine layer of cells that eventually form a ring.  Some years will be robust due to mild weather and plentiful water.  Other years are lean, giving voice to the agony of drought.  Fires, freezes, and floods are also chronicled by the trees.Trees record this information for their entire lives.  When they die, that information lingers on until such time as it decomposes.  For climate scientists and archaeologists, these records of past weather help them understand how the world has changed. Dendochronology, the science of using the information of tree rings to understand the past, is the most well known of Mother Nature's past weather reports.

Varves, an annual deposition of sediment from advancing and retreating glaciers, also record the past.  In these sediments, a skilled paleobotanist can tell you what plants bloomed in particular years.  Comparing pollen found in sediment means that scientists can use this natural phenomenon to literally see the flora of the past, which indicates weather patterns. In some places, ancient peat bogs hold some of the same information.

Ice sheets in polar regions not only hold sediment like pollen and preserved plant and animal life, also capture bits of the atmosphere.  Using a great deal of equipment, scientists can actually test the differences in the chemical make up of the Earth's atmosphere in the past.  This information is important to understanding and predicting what will happen with global climate change.  If we can see a steady, documented change in the atmosphere, which also indicates the global temperatures, we may be able to not only convince world leaders that climate change is happening, but get them to do something about it.

As amazing as it is that humans have figured out how to read these records is the fact that exist.  To me, that is beautiful, wonderful and reassuring.  We humans learned to record the past, not because we came up with it, but because we can emulate nature. It reaffirms my faith that for any question we have, nature has an answer for us if we are creative enough and determined enough to continue looking for those answers.  this all tells me that somehow, this world that often seems so chaotic, makes sense. It also means that we need to be more careful about preserving the natural world, because if we don't these repositories of natural history will be lost, as so will we.

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