Geology of the National Parks

Video Lecture


The Unit 12 lecture features Dr. Richard Alley.

Unit 12 Lecture
Click for a transcript of the Unit 12 lecture.

We're coming to the end. We're going to talk today about biodiversity and climate change, look to the future, and we need to do a little review, and you're going to be a expert on the geology of the national parks and a whole bunch of other things. Today, we're going to start with solar power. As you probably know, I am sun-powered, and I'm happy about that. And so, we're going to look briefly through that and why I can say we're sun-powered. Then we're going to look a little bit at how ancient sun is powering us, and then we'll ask something about how that makes charismatic macrofauna important in the national parks.

So, let's start with this. And as you probably know, it's green in many places right now outside. And the green stuff is plants, and the plants are doing maybe the most important thing for us. And what is a plant doing? The job of a plant is to take carbon dioxide-- and you probably know that scientists like to abbreviate things so that we can talk faster, and so, people often call carbon dioxide CO2. And the plant also takes water, and if you-- I'm sorry. I will pull myself together here very quickly. I'm sorry. Now you can see what we're writing.

And so, the job of a plant is to take carbon dioxide, which is CO2, and to take water, which we abbreviate as H2O. And the plant is sitting there, and it's adding the sun's energy. If you put the plant in a dark place and wait, it dies. And what does it do? It makes more plant. And so, this is a formula for how things work. And if you prefer, a plant is something vaguely like this. Now, in point of fact, if you go look in the plant and you try to find that molecule, you won't find it. But if you sort of boil down plant and take a little bit of nitrogen out, you'll end up with something like that. And the plant is sitting there making oxygen. And so, that will also be O2. And so, if you wanted to write a formula for what goes on out there in the sun and the green and so on, it is carbon dioxide, water, and sun's energy making more plant and making oxygen.

Now, our job is to take plant and to scarf it down for lunch. And then we run this backwards. And so, our job-- we, and bacteria, and fungi, and forest fires-- run this backwards. And so, our job is to get the plant, we take a little of the plant and we turn it into us. But mostly, we take the plant and we turn it into energy so we can do fun stuff. And so, this is how things work, and things are very tightly balanced. Virtually everything that grows gets burned, because it's way too valuable not to. And so if you see something die out there, immediately something is burning it. And whether it's a forest fire or whether it's a fungus or whether it's a bacterium or whether it's something else coming along and scarfing it down and eating it, almost everything gets burned. If you go down to the ocean and you watch the algae die and sink to the bottom, they fall in the mud. If you look in the mud, there's all kinds of stuff crawling around in there trying to eat the organic stuff, to eat the plant and burn it to get energy.

However, occasionally, there is a little bit of leakage. Occasionally, something escapes. And so, if you bury plant-- fancy technology here, if you bury plant and you bury it in a place that there isn't much oxygen-- so, you notice that we sort of breathe the oxygen to run this backwards. If you bury plant where oxygen is scarce, actually, all sorts of other things happen. If you're down at the ocean, why, things will use sulfate to burn rather than oxygen, and you'll end up with black mud of sulfite and stinky stuff and so on, but eventually, you start running out of things you can use to burn. And so, you bury the plant without oxygen, and it will avoid burning for a while.

OK, so it avoids being burned. And if you then take that and heat it and maybe squeeze it a little bit, you get what we call a fossil fuel. So, you heat a little, and it will get cooked. It will change a bit. Some of the molecules will break down. And you end up with what we call a fossil fuel. And it's really almost that simple until you get into it and the organic chemistry of this. It's just absolutely fascinating. And so, there's lots of people study that.

Now, there are various types of fossil fuels, and if we had a real expert in here, they'd say, whoa, you're oversimplifying just a bit. But let's say that you're down at the ocean and there's lots of algae. There's a big bloom, and you get all the slime, and it sinks to the bottom, and it gets in the mud, and then you heat that. And so, we start off with algae and we bury that without oxygen. What do we get? The first thing is that there's bacteria down there, and the bacteria break it down, and they commit acts of bacterial flatulence, and so, they make natural gas. And so, the first thing that happens is you get gas, and the gas is usually coming from bacteria. So, they're down there farting away, and they're making gas.

What happens next is that as it warms up, you get warmer and warmer. So, we're going to warm it going this way. So, let's say we're going warmer this way. It gets too hot for the bacteria, they become unhappy. But what you do do is you start breaking down the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] cells, and you end up with what we call oil. And that is very useful for us. We don't have to go kill whales to get oil. So, we have light at night, we can pump it out of the ground, and so that's a nice thing. If it gets really, really hot, the oil breaks down. Your engine gets too hot, you start breaking down the oil unless you have really expensive additives in there. And so, when it gets too hot, the oil breaks down, and actually, you get more gas. So, bacteria make gas, and actually great heat makes gas. And so, these are the big fossil fuels, and we're doing a huge amount of burning of these fossil fuels.

If you start with wood instead of with algae, you probably know that algae is sort of slimy and wood is sort of chunky, and so, you're going to get something different. And so, the usual story we tell is you start with wood and you start heating it, you end up with a material that we call peat. Now, this is not identical to the peat moss you buy at the store, but it's something that you sort of recognize. It's organic stuff, it's sort of brown and chunky, and you'll recognize it. So, again, we're going here from colder to warmer. So, we're headed to the warmer direction here. You squeeze it a little bit, you heat it a little bit, you leave it for a while, and you may end up with peat, but it hasn't changed very much.

And then as we go along, you end up making something that we call lignite, or brown coal. So, now we're getting up into coal, and the lowest level thing, the least heating and so on that you end up with would be lignite. And when you go beyond lignite, then you get to stuff that is mined, say, in Western Pennsylvania, which is bituminous coal. So, bitumen, you can see in there, so, bituminous. And then, if you really heat things and squeeze them a lot, you end up with what we call anthracite. And in Pennsylvania, the anthracite belt is in the East, where things have been squeezed and heated a lot. This is the coal path here, as opposed to the oil path here.

Now if you were to ask, what would you find this in? If you find peat, what is around it? And what you'd find around peat you'd call sediment. It isn't really a rock yet. It hasn't been cemented enough to be a rock. And you'll find the peat sitting around with a sediment of some sort. By the time you get to lignite, you'd call it a rock. You'd say, this has been squeezed and heated and cemented enough that it really sort of looks like a rock, but it would be pretty soft. And by the time you get up to bituminous, you'd say, well, this is still a sedimentary rock, but now it's a pretty hard one. So these are sedimentary rocks around the coal in here. And by the time you get up to anthracite, you'd say, whoa, this is metamorphic rock. We're past sedimentary at this point. And so anthracite you'd find is a metamorphic rock.

I'll show you a map in just a minute of where you find these different things. In Pennsylvania, where I happen to live, you find the sedimentary rocks, the bituminous, out in Western Pennsylvania, and you find the anthracite, the metamorphic rocks, over in Eastern Pennsylvania, near the heart of the old Appalachians, where they got cooked a lot. So, the Eastern Pennsylvania is out here. In the same way, in Pennsylvania, you can find a little bit of bacterial gas in various places, but you'll find the oil mostly out in Western Pennsylvania, and you'll just get nothing but gas left as you go east, because the oil has been broken down because it got cooked too much.

So, those are the fossil fuels. The oil, the natural gas, we're using pretty fast. We may have at current rates of use and at prices that are not grotesquely higher than what we have now, we have a century or less of them to go. And so, if we look at these fossil fuels at this point in the game, for oil and gas at current use rate-- at the current rate of use-- and at prices that are sort of like what we have today-- so, sort of recognizable prices-- we have maybe a century of oil and gas and a few centuries of coal.

Now, this clearly depends on the price. And when I grew up in Central Ohio, in Columbus, we were on the Ohio Shale. The Ohio Shale's a black shale, and if you dig up some stuff that's been buried and break it open, you smell a little bit of oil and gas in there. There's a little organic in that. If gas and oil were worth $1,000 a gallon, you'd just strip mine Columbus. Who cares? Just take it right through, or dig underneath it, or something. So, there's a little more out there if the price goes up immensely, but I don't think we really expect that anyone is going to pay $1,000 a gallon for gasoline. So, sort of at the price we recognize, this looks like about where we're going with these things, that they will run out at some point, and not too far out in the future.

Now this gives rise to all sorts of interesting questions. And so, let's take a brief look at the place where one of these questions is playing out. We're going to take a very brief visit to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As you know, there is a fair amount of oil and gas in Alaska, and people are very interested in going up and drilling for more of it. And there's other people that say, well, if you do that, you're going to-- we won't have it in the future when we really need it, and you're going to stir up the wildlife. And so, this was set aside as a national park, a National Wildlife Refuge, and so, we shouldn't screw with it.

And so, there's a big debate has been going on. Should we be going up and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? And here's a picture of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is sitting down here, and we'll get our pen back so, I can scribble on things. And so, here is a picture of a caribou sitting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is way up north in Alaska. It's a very interesting, very pretty place. The oil from that would feed into the Great Alaska Pipeline. And there's a picture of the Alaska Pipeline on here for you. They spent an immense amount of money building that pipeline, and they're not getting enough oil to keep it full anymore, and so, they'd really like to drill more so they can get more out of their investment in the pipeline. And so, there is a lot of interest in going and drilling under that caribou to get the oil that will feed into the pipeline that will make people money and give them power and do the nice things-- we're using power to keep the room nice and to light the room. So, we like this.

So, here's some pictures of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There's usually a lot of argument about the health of the caribou. Caribou probably can put up with a number of things, but there are issues in there about how healthy they'll be and whether they get disturbed by drilling and oil pumping. I have to admit, I've been to Alaska a few times. I've done research in Alaska. I've never been to the National Wildlife Refuge, and I really want to go. The pictures of it are just phenomenal. So, if you get a chance, it's a cool place.

This is a picture of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from space. Up here there are various-- this is actually ocean up here, and in it, there's sea ice. The ocean freezes in the winter and it has ice that floats around on top of it. And this is land down here. And here's a big river that is charging north and putting out onto it. And the mountains down here, the greener stuff down in here, shows where the mountains are, and the glaciers have carved down into the valleys. It's a wonderful place. And underneath this, in the sedimentary rocks, there's almost certainly oil, probably something vaguely in the neighborhood of 10 billion barrels, is one of these estimates.

Very briefly, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is over here. And so, the North Slope of Alaska up there on the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, where people want to go drilling, is over there. There isn't huge amounts of oil known elsewhere in Alaska. It's a little too beat up and cooked. What one can see in oil and natural gas, the greens on here are oil and the reds are gas. And so, if one goes to Pennsylvania, you have a lot of oil. And then as you go to hotter rocks, you start getting into gas, and then you just run out. This has been too cooked to have anything in it.

And you'll see various other places where people have produced. There is undoubtedly some more stuff offshore in places. There's been production in California, a lot of things up and down the Rockies. The Gulf Coast is a big gooey pile of mud that's just full of stuff, And so, there has been an immense amount of production down along the Gulf Coast. And so, this is where, in the United States, oil and gas come from. Production in the US has peaked, it's headed down. We're slowly running out of it, we sort of know where it is.

First oil well, Pennsylvania. There's still some here, there's not huge amounts coming out any more. It was an energy crisis. People were lighting their homes with whale oil. And more people, more lighting, the same number of whales, fewer whales, this doesn't work forever. People had used oil from seeps. They know it would burn, but [INAUDIBLE] Pennsylvania, the Drake Well in Titusville, and suddenly, you have energy. And you don't have to go wipe out the whales because you could use oil energy, and that's a really great thing. It really was.

This is where coal comes from, various kinds. And you'll see it's sort of the same places that oil comes from, not identically, but sort of the same places that coal comes from. And there's coal in many other countries around the world. China has an immense amount of coal, for example.

So, let's pop back over and write a couple of things here for just a minute, and then we will go back to that picture. The business of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it's worth a mention of what's involved here. So, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, do you drill there? It is set aside for the people, it is set aside for the wildlife, it's set aside for the enjoyment, and there's something valuable underneath it. How valuable? Estimates run about 10 billion barrels of oil. They don't know this. They haven't gone up and drilled it yet, but it's a pretty educated guess. It's a pretty educated guess.

Now, what does that mean? If you are looking at the big picture of energy in the US, that is two years of imports. So, in terms of, do we go to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and solve our energy problem? Is it the environmentalists, they're saving the caribou, and they're wiping us out, and the world is terrible because we're not going up there-- oh come on. Two years of imports. It'd take, you know, 20, 30, 40 years to get that oil out. You'd not even notice it. It doesn't matter in the big picture of how we fuel the country.

On the other hand, at $75 a barrel, that is $750 billion. And where I come from, that's a big number. And some of this would go to Alaskans, some of this would go to shareholders. There's a lot of money there. This is money that would not be shipped somewhere else, it would stay in the country, or a lot of it would. And so, when you get into debates like this, it's a very interesting problem as to how you do this and is it a good thing or a bad thing? So, something to think about. You don't solve the problem there, but you might.

Now, there's another thing that we should chat about. We saw those maps of oil and gas. We know we're burning a lot of oil and gas. When you burn oil and gas, it makes CO2. We saw way back that fossil fuel is just carbon that hasn't been burned. And we take that carbon, we add oxygen to it, and we make CO2 and water, and we get the energy out, and that's a good thing for us. And the water just goes up in the sky and it rains out and goes back to the ocean, it's no problem. It goes in a big hurry. But the carbon dioxide that we burn goes back in the atmosphere and it stays for a long time. So, in getting energy from fossil fuels, we saw already that what we're doing is putting CO2 into the atmosphere where it will stay.

Now, the amount of that is surprisingly large. If you go to the gas station and you fill up the tank, it's about 100 pounds of gasoline. If you actually had to bring all those gallons of gasoline home in gallon jugs, it'd be a different world. But you just put them in the car and you drive away. So, you get 100 pounds of gasoline. You burn it, and you add oxygen, and the oxygen weighs more than the gasoline, and so you make 300 pounds of CO2 for each tank. And so, a typical commuter is sort of doing 300 pounds a week. And then that wafts away into the atmosphere.

Suppose for a moment that instead of the CO2 wafting away into the atmosphere, that it came out of the tailpipe as horse ploppies. You possibly remember that way back, people used to have horses, and you'd drive your horse down the street, and the horse would go [MAKES NOISE], and you'd know that there were horses on the street. Well suppose, rather than the CO2 just drifting away into the air where we can't see it, suppose it came out as horse ploppies. It's a pound a mile for a typical car. Just imagine rush hour. [MAKES CAR NOISES] It would cover every road in America an inch deep every year. Just don't even think about jogging. Don't even think about jet airplanes. It would be just truly amazing.

And so, we are making lots of CO2. We are taking 500 million years worth of fossil fuels and we're burning them in 500 years. And so, what's going on here is it sort of took 500 million years to make most of these fossil fuels. Older rocks in that are almost all cooked. They've almost all lost their fossil fuel. So, nature has been putting stuff down and taking it out for longer than that, but most of the fossil fuels are from the last 500 million years to make these. And we're going to burn them in 500, and so we're sort of a million times faster than nature. And eventually, nature will take down what we do to it, but it will take a long time. And so, right now, we humans are putting a lot of fossil fuel CO2 into the atmosphere, and we're putting there a lot faster than nature can take it down. And that's very clear. So, we are raising CO2. And we're raising CO2 big time. It is a large deal.

So, let me now talk about what that might mean, and let me show you a couple of pictures. This one may be the most important one, but we'll show three here. This is the global warming story. This is a story which is very well-established. The science behind this is really good. This is getting to the pound on the table, you should believe this. It's still not revealed truth, this is still science, but it's really good science.

What we know, first of all, is that the planet has been warming over the last century and a bit more. And so, in these, all three of these plots have a red line, and I'm going to point at the red line here and draw a little arrow so you see the red line. The red line is the history of temperature on the surface of the planet. We can only sort of look back to 1860 or so and know this from thermometers. Older than that, we have to use indirect means, because there weren't enough thermometers around the planet to know the globally averaged temperature. This is not the temperature in cities, because cities make things a little hotter. This is the globally averaged temperature.

And what you see if you follow the red line from 1860 way back up to 2000 on the right-- this has now been updated a little bit, but I don't have the new slide yet-- what you'll see as you follow the red line is it has jumped and bumped and wiggled, but it's gone up. This is from thermometers, it's from thermometers away from cities. The satellites measure this, the balloons measure this. The ground is warming, the ocean is warming, the glaciers are melting. Even where the glaciers are getting more snow, they're melting. There's really no doubt anymore in science that there's warming going on. The size so far is really small. It's less than a degree, or about a degree, and so it's not a big deal yet. But the temperature has been going up.

So then the question is, is nature doing this or are humans doing this? And so, the gray curve over here in this plot where I'm scribbling, the gray curve sitting there is a model output. You take a model that includes how the world works and you tell the model what nature has done. Every time there's a big volcano, it throws stuff up in the stratosphere and it blocks the sun for a couple years, and it gets cold. And so, in fact, there were times that it's observed that it was sort of cold, and that cold-- right down below that arrow that I'm trying to draw there-- that cold was from a volcano. There was a big volcano blocking the sun, and there's a few others marching along there.

In addition, very clearly, if the brightness of the sun changes, it will matter. And we know for the last couple of sunspot cycles, we've have satellites up in space and they're watching the sun, and when the sunspots change, so does the brightness of the sun. Older than that, we don't have satellites, but we know how many sunspots there were. And so, you take the satellite sunspot relations and you run them back in time, and so you can tell the model what nature was doing. You can put in orbits, but it takes 10,000 years for the orbits to matter much, and so orbits bring you Ice Ages and get rid of them, but they don't matter much over 100 years.

So, you get the model and you tell it everything you know about nature, and then you ask the model, what should nature have done? What should the history of temperature be? And the gray curve is what the model says with the uncertainties given. 100 years ago, it was cold because of nature. Big volcanoes, dim sun. Sometimes, the volcanoes and the sun go together, and sometimes they go apart, and it happened 100 years ago they were together, and it started to warm into the early part of the 20th century, because the sun brightened and the volcanoes quieted down. The later part of the 20th century, there's been some volcanoes. The sun isn't doing much. And so, in fact, the later part of the 20th century, nature is saying, don't do much. But the temperatures are going up. So, 100 years ago, the temperature was doing what nature said. And recently, the temperature is not doing what nature says.

Now next, let's go over and let's try to tell the model what humans have been doing, what anthropogenic forcing is. Now, we put up greenhouse gases. We know the physics. 100 years ago, people knew the physics. You put that greenhouse gas up there, it's there. Some of it goes in the ocean, some of it goes in the plants, most of it's hanging up there. And it makes it warmer. And it makes it warmer for plain physics. It's as easy as putting a blanket on a bed making you warmer at night. And so, you know the physics. That part is good. And so, the greenhouse gas is out there, but we also have acid rain. And acid rain does the volcano job. You put more stuff up and it blocks some of the sun. So, the pieces that go up block sun, the invisible gases trap sun. And so, we end up with both warming and cooling.

Right after World War II, we had really filthy, dirty smokestacks, we had a lot of acid rain. And in fact, there's a little bit of cooling that went on. And the little bit of cooling is because the dirty smokestacks were beating out the CO2 from the tailpipes. And so, we actually had some cooling. And then more recently, you put up dirty smokestack stuff, it falls down in two weeks, and the CO2 is staying up there for hundreds or thousands of years. And so, more recently, you get the CO2 winning.

Now in the third plot shown there, we show what nature has said and what humans have said. So, you take the model, you tell it about nature, you tell it about humans. The red curve is what happened, and the gray curve is what the model thinks that humans and nature have done together. And what I see is that when you tell the model about nature and humans, it matches. Early on, the world was doing what nature said. And as the humans have yelled louder and louder, as we've had more of these tailpipe gases building up up there, our voice is coming above the voice of nature, and now the temperature is doing mostly what humans say. Nature's still there, volcanoes still matter. But with very high confidence now, what is going on is mostly a human influence.

Now, the change in CO2 so far-- this is a record we started 1,000 years ago. This is from some friends of mine who work on ice cores. And you take the bubbles and you break them, and you have the ages from counting of annual layers. And so, we know what the CO2 concentration was of the air. And 1,000 years ago, it was at some level, and 800 years ago, it was at a level, and 400 years ago, it was at the same level. And then we start burning, and right now, we have come up to about here. The change so far in CO2 is not terribly big. The ice core data are on here, and the instrumental record, the measurements directly in laboratories, are on here. And you'll notice that they agree really, really well. No one's pulling your leg.

As you go into the future here, there's various possibilities. Does the economy grow a lot or does the economy tank? Do people try to clean up or do people just burn it like crazy? And so, these lines off in the green part over here-- all the lines up there-- are different possible futures that people have envisioned for how CO2 goes. Things to note. In every single one of these futures that people have envisioned, 100 years from now, there's a lot more CO2 than there is now. The change so far is little. The change that's coming is big.

In every one of these futures, it's still going up when it goes across the year 2100. The world does not end in 2100. You may live through 2100. Your children will. And so, this is still headed up. If we burn all the fossil fuels, this number right at the top here is 1,000. We can certainly go above 1,000. We may go above 2,000. We may push up to 2,400 or so. And so, if we burn all the fossil fuels, we're so far off of this plot that we just don't know how to show it to you. We'd have to do some very different things. The change so far is a little tiny thing. The change that will come if we keep burning like crazy is a big thing.

Now, this is the temperature. So far, the warming is something like a degree. The change so far is way down here at the bottom. It's something like a degree. That is smaller than natural variability. It's really easy for my neighbor to get up in the morning on a cold day and say, oh, love that global warming, don't you? It's not very big yet. These are various futures. There's uncertainty about things we don't know about nature, and there are things we don't know about nature. There's uncertainty about the things we don't know about what humans will do. That's the biggest source. Most of the uncertainty is in the humans, not in the nature.

Things to notice. The change so far is tiny. The change to come in every future envisioned is huge. In every one of these, the temperature is still going up when you go across 2100. You're going to see that, probably. Your kids will. If we go all the way, we go way the heck up. If we get there, it's a very different world. We start talking about melting Greenland, we start talking about melting part of Antarctica, we start talking about raising sea level 50 feet, we start talking about New Orleans type floods for all the coasts of the world over the next centuries. These are possibilities. They're things that people are investigating. The stories are not all in, we're not sure what that future holds.

But we know that we can just sort of see the things that are happening right now. And we know that with very high confidence, what is coming if we do burn it all-- if we go out there and crank all these fossil fuels into the atmosphere in a hurry-- are going to be really big differences. And so, if we can synopsize, this is still science. It's not revealed truth. Am I absolutely 100% percent, guarantee you, sell-it-all positive of this? No. Is this good science? Yes, this is very good science. And so, it is good science. And the good science says that we have just started on a global warming path that if we follow it all the way, if we go all the way, it will be a very different world.

And it will be for your great grand-kids and their great grand-kids. This is not something that comes immediately, but it's something that comes. And the confidence in this is very high. The economic analyses that are walking out of this say it is a world that we will not be happy with. It's not the end of humanity. Humans are the greatest weed that was ever invented. We always figure something out. But the analyses looking far enough out say that we will be very unhappy if we do this. And so, that's fairly clear. And so, the best estimate now is that the losers will far outnumber the winners as we look far out.

There are also very credible estimates that if a lot of bright people got busy now looking at alternative energy, looking at CO2 capture and sequestration looking for solutions, that in a few decades, this is solvable for something like 1% of the economy. And so, there are lots of bright people that say, hey, there is a solution out there. There is a doable solution. It can be gotten, and it can be gotten for a price which is within the realm of plausibility. And so, reasonable estimates say that something like 1% of the economy could cure this after a few decades of good research. Right now, we couldn't do it. We don't know how to do it. But they say that it is possible if people get busy now looking for solutions to do it.

Now, how you look at 1% of the economy? I don't know. It's $250 billion a year. That's a lot of money. It's a lot less than we spend on cleaning up after ourselves now. We have we have sewers. We pay plumbers. We don't just poop on our neighbors. We don't dump it out the window in the morning. And so, if you add up all costs that we spend on cleanups now, this is not totally out of line with that sort of thing. And so, how you look at that is it's not huge compared to cleanup costs already. It is huge if you look at government programs. It's something like $250 billion a year, and that's real money. And it may be a piece of an industry that-- there might be jobs there. So, it's jobs, it's new industry, it's all sorts of ideas. It's smart people inventing better ways to do things. So, there's some fairly interesting stuff that's hanging out there.

I do a lot of work on this, Sridhar does a lot of work on this. We're sort of the ice side of that. But I've had the remarkable good fortune to have breakfast with Al Gore when he was vice president. I've had the remarkable good fortune to testify to a committee chaired by Senator John McCain. So, I've chatted with people on both sides of the aisle on this. I personally believe that we can think our way out of the problem, and I personally believe that if we don't think our way out of the problem, that our great grand-kids are going to be really, really unhappy with us.

Trying to figure out who's going to be unhappy with whom when is a hard game. And so, you're not going to be asked on a final exam to please parrot back my particular opinion. But I spend a lot of time looking at this, at the things that could happen, and I think it would be wise for smart people now to be looking for solutions because eventually, we run out of oil, we need solutions. And the question is, do we burn it all and change the world and then find the solutions, or do we start looking now? And I personally have tremendous faith in you as students that we can find our way out of this, but I'd really like to see somebody telling you that that's a good way to go, that you can make a living there, that maybe the government will help pay for your education so you can do good things that way. And I would be much happier with the world if we were doing that.

Now, we're going to go to one additional brief topic, and then we will pretty much be run through here. This topic is some of the impacts of climate change, some of the impacts of humans, and what this does to biodiversity. This is a moose. There's a happy moose. People go to the parks, and most of the parks are made for geology, and most of the people go for biology. The rangers call this charismatic macrofauna. A moose is a charismatic macrofauna. They're really wonderful. This is a moose slightly out of place. This is actually in Anchorage, Alaska, and the moose is wandering through town, but they're still neat looking things. It's fun to have biology, it's fun to have these things out there.

These are elk. This is in Yellowstone. Actually, the elk are on top of Mammoth Hot Springs right here. And they go out there, as near as we can figure out, to get away from the bugs. Bugs don't like to fly far away from cover because then they get scarfed down by swallows. And so, if you're in the middle of nowhere, there's no bugs out there, and so, it's a fine place to go to get away from the bugs. And then you go back and eat for a little while, and then you go out here and get away from the bugs.

This is the Greenland Ice Sheet. We are a couple of miles in on ice. We're flying over. And what do you see? You see caribou out on the ice sheet. What are they doing there? Same thing, they're getting away from the bugs. You don't really like bugs out there. And so, this is up towards the National Park in Greenland, we're a little outside of it. So, that's sort of cool. That's charismatic macrofauna. You look at the racks on some of these guys. This one down here is just amazing. Just beautiful, beautiful creatures.

This is not quite such a beautiful creature, but maybe a cuter one. This is a golden mantled ground squirrel. So, I don't know if this is a charismatic macrofauna or a charismatic mini-fauna, but at any rate, there's fauna out there. And it's very clear that this matters to park visitors. It's very clear that this matters to people. And so, let us finish up with a word on biodiversity. When the parks were founded, the people went out in howling wilderness where there's these vast tracts that just look biologically the same, and they drew a box around a pretty piece of geology, and they said, that's a national park.

Then what happened is that people started using the land that wasn't protected. And they hunted, they just about killed off the bison and Yellowstone saved them for us. People start plowing, people start doing all sorts of things. And so, slowly, we're turning the parks into islands. Slowly-- actually, fairly rapidly-- we're turning the parks into islands. You can look at a satellite photo of many of the parks, and on the satellite photo, you can draw the boundary because you can see the human use comes right up to the boundary and then it stops. And in fact, in the website, there's a picture of Yellowstone that shows this. And so what happened then is most of the parks were founded for geological reasons, but the parks are clearly key for biology, for biodiversity.

Now, we humans like biodiversity, and it's still not absolutely clear why. It's pretty. It's fun. We learn things, we cure diseases using stuff that comes from plants. We can watch-- the falcons were a good warning that DDT was going to get us if we went too far. And so, biodiversity serves as the canary in the coal mine. And so, you look at this and sort of biodiversity is fun, it's pretty, we enjoy it. Biodiversity is clearly useful to us. If you extinguish the plant before you find the wonderful miracle drug in it, why, you sort of screwed up. A great number of our medicines initially came from plants of one sort or another. And so, there's food, there is medicine, there's all sorts of things that we're learning from biodiversity.

It's also useful sort of as the canary in the coal mine, the tracker of environmental issues, sensitive things get sick before we do and we watch them. And so, it's warnings of problems. The miners would take the canary down, they liked the canary, but if the canary croaked, they knew they'd better get out of there because they're next. And so, warnings of problems is there. It's fairly clear that diverse ecosystems are more productive. And so, if you like lots of stuff to eat, you like lots of things to grow, you want to keep an eye on diversity. So, diversity tends to promote productivity in ecosystems as well as in social settings. Diversity promotes productivity. Interesting result from recent ecology work. And so, there's a number of things, and we like it. It's pretty.

It also may be a moral issue. Can you look that moose in the eye and say, I am more important than you are, bang. People do. But do we have a right to extinguish other species, or is there a morality thing hanging around there? So, there may be morals sitting here in biodiversity as well.

Now, humans have been really tough on biodiversity. It's now plenty of evidence that our ancestors were not completely in harmony with every piece of nature. There's long histories of as you see humans arriving in a new area, that there is an extension that followed very closely thereafter. Whether we did it directly or whether the rats and the dogs and the pigs that came with us did it is not quite as clear, but it's reasonably clear that as humans have showed up, things have gone down. And so, humans, we're sort of headed for the next mass extinction if we keep on this path. And so, humans are hard on biodiversity, and they have been.

It's an interesting thing that fossil fuels so far have probably been good for this in some ways, because when the settlers got to Pennsylvania and they started making iron here, they cut every tree in the state except for little slivers there was a law fight about. They basically cut every tree in the state and they burned it. Once you have oil, once you have coal, you don't have to cut every tree in the state. And trees are good for diversity. And so, we chased most of the critters out of Pennsylvania. And now we've let it grow back, and a lot of the critters have come back, and it's because we're not having to cut the trees to burn them.

So, there's an interesting problem here. But there is a global warming issue that's coming up with biodiversity in the fairly near future. And this has to do with islands, actually. So, if you go and look, what you'll find is big islands have lots of species. Small islands have few species. There's several explanations. A big part of the explanation is if you're a little island, there's only a few critters there. And if two of them kill each other, if they both get a disease and they die, they're gone. That's it. If there's a big island, there's lots of critters. And some of them over there get the disease, the ones over here might not. And then the ones over here can repopulate over there. And so, when you get a small island, you don't have room for very many. The small islands give you small populations. And the small populations means that it's easy to be extinguished. It's easy to be wiped out because there just aren't very many of them there. So easy to kill all.

So, what happens? We make Yellowstone, we make Glacier. Yellowstone and Glacier are initially connected. They're in this vast wilderness and they're all connected. What happens if we isolate them? What happens if between Glacier and Yellowstone, we put nothing but humans? They're islands now. Because if you're an orchid, if you're a soil bacterium, if you're a little golden mantled ground squirrel, can you really run across 1,000 miles of parking lots or wheat fields or something to get to the other one? No. Human environments are not terribly friendly at that point.

And so, essentially, by changing the land tremendously, by building cities, by building roads, by building farm fields that we spray with poisons or so on, essentially what we do is we turn the parks into islands. And so, essentially, humans are steadily isolating the parks in seas of human controlled land. We'll put "seas" in quotes, a sea of wheat, a sea of blacktop, human controlled land. And the unfortunate reason all of that is that even if we stay out of the park, even if we don't go in, by making the island smaller, we will cause extinctions in the parks eventually. And if we're counting on the park to maintain our biodiversity, then we lose things.

And so, there's big issues that are coming, and these then get compound with global warming. Because if you warm the world, the critters want to migrate. They're living down south, they want to go up north. OK, it's fine. They migrated in the past when the climate changed, who cares, OK. It's harder to migrate if when you step out, you get shot or you get poisoned or you die on the way across the parking lot, or you get run over. It's very hard to migrate. So, climate change then will force migrations across places they can't migrate. There's a sea in the way. There's a cornfield in the way. So, changing climate is going to force migrations so that critters can stay with the climate that they like.

So, changing climate forces migrations and you start to ask, can you get from island to island? And yeah, if you're a wolf, you might run across the road without getting run over, but how does an orchid get there? And we're in the way. And so, there are many people now who are saying, hey. It isn't enough to have an island. Shouldn't we keep Yellowstone connected to Glacier? Shouldn't we connect them on up to Alaska so that things have an outlet, they can get from here to there, and we don't turn the parks into islands. Because if we turn the parks into islands, eventually we will lose some of the things that live there. And our scientific confidence in that is also very high. There's ways to do this, there's ways to be smart. But if we don't do the smart things, we will lose things that we like with very high confidence.

Credit: Dr. Richard Alley

Want another look?

Check out the Unit 12 Presentation (the PowerPoint presentation used in the online lecture).