This Fertile World

Earth from Apollo 17, NASA, 1976
Earth from Apollo 17, NASA, 1976

‘Planet Earth is astonishingly fruitful’, says Robert White, Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University and Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. White is often asked why God would allow natural disasters to happen. He has laid out his answer in a new book Who is to Blame? Disasters, Nature and Acts of God. Part of his response is to begin by explaining the science behind the fertility of the Earth, and I share it here with permission of the author.

Without a measure of natural global warming, without earthquakes, without volcanoes, without floods the world would be sterile and humans could not live here. But paradoxically, many of the processes that make it possible for humans to live on earth are the same as those that give rise to disasters. For example, if there had never been any volcanoes on Earth then the geological source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would be missing. The likely result is that the planet would have been frozen for most of its history.[i] This would have prevented the existence of most, and maybe all of life, including humans. Volcanic eruptions also continually cycle to the surface of the earth huge volumes of minerals essential for life. Volcanic islands such as Hawaii support lush growth of plants and animals, and are some of the most biodiverse areas on earth.

Another example of a normally beneficial natural process is floods. They are a means of distributing fertile soils. For millennia it was the annual flood of the Nile that enabled Egypt to prosper. When the Nile flood failed, as it did for example in 1784, probably as a consequence of a massive eruption in Iceland, about one sixth of the population died.[ii]

Considering earthquakes as the last of this trilogy, they occur with a suddenness that is frequently catastrophic if they are near major cities. Yet without earthquakes there would be no plate tectonics and no mountain ranges. The continual building and erosion of mountains and the eruption of molten rock as part of the plate tectonic cycle provides a steady supply of nutrients which allows life to thrive on this planet. Another consequence of the configuration of oceans and continents generated by plate tectonics is that it allows ocean circulation including, for example, the North Atlantic Drift (colloquially known as the Gulf Stream). This continually carries a gigantic 1.4 trillion kilowatts of heat into the North Atlantic: that is one hundred times the current energy use of the entire world. It is what gives northern Europe a temperate climate. An example of the role of mountains produced by the action of plate tectonics is that without the Himalayan mountain range the annual monsoons which provide water for 1,000 million people in India would not occur. These examples can be multiplied many times. Mountain ranges, which grow through frequent earthquakes as the earth’s crust deforms, cause rainfall which in turn makes many surrounding areas fruitful and habitable.

Although natural processes are beneficial in generating a suitable home for humanity, it is when humans interact badly with them that a natural process can turn into a disaster. Unfortunately, it is often the actions of humans that hugely exacerbates the scale of the disasters.

Who is to blame coverIn the rest of this very readable book, White explains that sometimes 95% or more of the casualties from ‘natural disasters’ are caused by human selfishness and greed. Of course we then need to ask, what about the seemingly unavoidable casualties? So White lays out a Biblical response to suffering using the experiences of Job, Joseph and Jesus. This is an important and difficult subject, but I am fascinated to read the perspective of someone who has spent his career studying these phenomena, and I am now incredibly grateful for plate tectonics.

 

 

 

[i] The average surface temperature in the absence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would be about -6°C or lower (J. Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 2004, 351 pp.
[ii] Luke Oman and others, ‘High-latitude eruptions cast shadow over the African monsoon and the flow of the Nile’ Geophysical Research Letters, 2006, vol. 33, L18711, doi:10.1029/2006GL027665

7 thoughts on “This Fertile World

  1. raulconde001 July 18, 2014 / 3:31 am

    I think we were headed is that our planet is getting more heat all around. It’s not going to be cold as ice anymore, and we’re close to that heat weather very soon.

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    • Ruth Bancewicz July 18, 2014 / 6:42 pm

      Hi Raul, Thank you for your comment. You’re right that we will all be affected, although developing countries will be less well equipped to cope.

      The one that I have to pick up on is when you say is that it will be warmer for us all. Global warming causes more severe and variable weather, so that means more storms, some very cold winters as well as very warm ones over the years, some heat and droughts – which is what we see now. Here’s some information on that http://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/does-global-warming-mean-it’s-warming-everywhere

      Thanks,

      Ruth

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  2. montjoie1095 July 20, 2014 / 4:12 am

    No doubt the atheists I know will simply respond that God should have made all of that happen without the floods and volcanoes, etc. I’m also a little confused by Ruth is convinced about global warming given the record going back past the Roman Warm period showing this to be a pretty mild period, and wonder if you are also an AGW?

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  3. Kenny October 25, 2014 / 12:04 am

    Arguing that the geological processes of the planet are prerequisites for life to exist rather undermines the whole notion of a god doing anything at all.
    I wholly agree with his notion that human activity often exacerbates the negative impact of a geologically induced event, say earthquakes or volcanic eruptions for example. Building towns and cities in zones well-known to be in the impact-zone of regular earthquakes or an active/dormant volcano is of course going to lead to people getting the brunt of he aftermath of such events. Asking why God would afflict them so terribly is a particularly foolish question when earthquakes (for the sake of the point) were happening already. San Francisco springs to mind as a prime example of man’s arrogance over nature in this respect.

    As an atheist I would never say that God should have done anything differently, because it is a ludicrous statement to make considering the lack of a god in the first place. Understanding how the planet works as a natural phenomenon is fascinating though. This book does seem to encourage that knowledge which I approve of, even if it is unscientifically entwined around the proposition of a deity. Hopefully it will lead Christians to know their world better, even though the tone and references to biblical legends will probably reinforce their Faith. Ah well. I guess you can’t have it all :)

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    • Ruth Bancewicz November 5, 2014 / 5:30 pm

      Hi Kenny, thank you for letting us know what you think. The book is indeed a great explanation of how geological process work.

      I have to take issue with your first sentence though, which seems to assume that the existence of geological processes undermines the need for a God. That kind of God is a god-of-the-gaps (we don’t understand that process so God must have done it). Christians don’t believe in that sort of God. We believe in a God who made and sustains the whole universe, and evidently exists because he interacts with us and changes lives for the better. Here’s a paper that puts forward some helpful things about science and religion: http://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/resources/Faraday%20Papers/Faraday%20Paper%201%20Polkinghorne_EN.pdf

      Thank you for your comments,

      Ruth

      Like

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