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Web of water
self-regulation of ecology and climate
I’ve been pondering for a while now the way vegetation, animals, fungi, and microorganisms affect the climate via the water cycle, and I have had the sense there was this bigger, mysterious picture I had yet to understand of how all these biological and climatic parts self-organize into a functional Gaian whole. I could see that animals sometimes have a second order, or third order effect on the climate, where the animal affects a forest that affects the climate (second order), or an animal affects another animal that affects the climate (third order). I have a sense that fungi are influencing the climate via various nth order effects. How this all fits together into a globally operating system was not yet clear. How did the ecological pieces fit together with the atmospheric pieces to create a self-maintaining, self-healing, regenerative earth?
One of the visions in this Climate Water Project is to find the acupoints that can help restore our climate and ecosystems. An understanding of the self-organization patterns of ecology and atmosphere would illuminate which acupoints to push, and when.
Recently I came across a framework containing four principles of biology, principles I thought could also be applied to understand the earth eco-climate system. The framework came from a book called “So simple a beginning: How four principles shape our living world” by Raghuveer Parthasarathy.
The principles are 1. self-assembly 2. regulatory circuits 3. predictable randomness 4.scaling. Examples of self-assembly in biology are how molecules self-assemble into membranes, how cells self-organize their innards, how tissues construct themselves. Examples of regulatory circuits in biology are how the immune system regulates different impacts on the body, how the hormonal system knows which hormone to release when, how the developmental process expresses genes to create different structures. (The other two principles I have touched on in other essays, and will discuss more in future essays).
How do we apply these principles to the earth? How do the fungi, microorganisms, vegetation, animals, water and wind self-assemble? What is the regulatory network that is regulating the climate and the ecology? If we could understand these things better then it would give us a better idea of the acupoints, and the methodologies to help restore climate and ecology. Humans could set in motion self-assembly, and then allow nature to take care of regulation - to dampen extreme weather, to keep ecosystems healthy, perhaps even to help keep global temperatures in a certain range.
Whilst these questions and ideas popped around in the back of my mind, I was also looking into the history of ecology and reading a paragraph about pioneering ecologist Charles Elton, and how he had proposed the ideas of a food web and ecological niches*. As I read about these concepts, I suddenly got this jolt. How extraordinary I thought, that someone once had to come up with these ideas. I had become so used to these ideas of a food web and ecological niche, they seemed so basic as ideas, that it was surprising to me to think that there was a time when these concepts were not around.
Well, I thought, maybe there is a concept, a construct that could be come up with that would help illuminate the eco-climate water cycle picture better.
What about - ‘water web’?
A food web is the set of paths of nutrients in an ecosystem, a map of what is eating what. A water web would include the food web and also the ways the different organisms are interacting with the water cycle.
This ontological shift, this shift of what object to focus on, to direct the attention at the whole network, seemed to help orient my way of thinking. It was like when you are doing anagram puzzles, and you see different combination of letters suddenly make sense in being next to each other. The water web was a new object with which one can apply different verbs to - self-assemble, regulate, modulate, evolve, immunize, and information-process.
Lets illustrate an example of a water web:
On the west coast of North America, salmon swim up streams, where they are eaten by bears. The bears then poop, supplying nutrients to the redwood trees. Often, 20-80% of nitrogen in redwood forests comes from salmon.
The redwood forests slow down the rain after it hits the ground. Some of the rainwater seeps underground, where it can come out months later to keep rivers running into the dry season.
The river and the forest help each other in a feedback loop, the river supplying nutrients to the forest via the salmon and the bear, and the forest keeping the river running year round.
The redwood forests also increase rain. They do this by first evapotranspiring enough water vapor that the water in the air increases above the saturation point, and condenses into clouds, and by secondly, slowing the wind, so the water vapor molecules in the air can bump into each other, and nucleate into rain. (In the last two decades, there are more and more scientists studying how forests create rain, people like Dominick Spracklen, Rong Fu, John Worden, Lei Yin, Anastasia Makarieva, Victor Gorschkov, Michael Kravcik, Jan Pokorny, Antonio Nobre, and Douglas Sheil.)
The redwood forests evapotranspire water vapor which ‘moisture hops’ inland (moisture hopping is defined as when water moves from land to air, gets carried by the wind, and then rains down onto the land again). The inland forest thus will get extra rain. Climate scientist Antonio Nobre and his colleagues have shown how in South America moisture hops from forest to forest. (There are variations of views on this amongst climate scientists - some think inland forests maybe getting more rain solely because they can slow the wind more.)
That rain that falls in the inland forest then traverses rivers and aquifers to feed the closer-to-the-coast redwood forest.
Here is a diagram of this water web:
Nik Bertulis, a permaculture water expert with whom I had previously recorded a podcast with here, looked at this diagram and said ‘Anadromous nutrient pump catalyses moisture hop’. Anadromous refers to when salmon swim upstream to breed. I loved his comment because it was a succinct summary of the dynamics in the water web.
After some reflection, I realized I also loved his comment, because it was an example of how to build up the complexity of our eco-weather grammar. As an analogy we can build sentences by starting out with simpler parts, like noun clauses and verb clauses, and then combine them to form more complex sentences. Anadromous pump is one grammatical structure, eco-related. Moisture hopping is another grammatical eco-structure, weather-related. We can combine them to form a more complex eco-weather sentence - ‘Anadromous nutrient pump catalyses moisture hop’.
We start with lower level phenomena, lets call it rank 1 phenomena, like ‘salmon swimming up stream’ , ‘bear eating salmon’, ‘bear poop provides nutrients to trees’, and use them to construct higher level phenomena. Rank 2 phenomena would be a ‘tree getting nutrients from bear poop that comes from salmon swimming upstream’. Rank 2 phenomena can then construct rank 3 phenomena like ‘anadromous nutrient pump catalyses moisture hop’.
We can also form another eco-weather sentence looking at how moisture hopping leads to greater river flow which helps with the anadromous pump. We can construct the counterpoint sentence ‘moisture hopping enhances the anadromous pump’.
The various parts of this water web, this eco-weather web, help catalyse each other. They form an autocatalytic network. An autocatalytic network is defined to be ‘a collection of entities, each of which can be created catalytically by other entities within the set, such that as a whole, the set is able to catalyze its own production’. This concept was made famous by the biologist Stuart Kauffman when he proposed life could have evolved into being through autocatalytic networks. In this autocatalytic water web, ‘the anadromous pump catalyses moisture hopping, and moisture hopping catalyses the anadromous pump’. This river-salmon-bear-forests autocatalytic loop would be a rank 4 phenomena.
I suspect there are also rank 5 and rank 6 phenomena. Rank 5 behavior may be about how animals, vegetation, fungi, self-organize to affect the large scale atmospheric circulations like the Hadley Cell, Ferrel Cell, Walker Cell, El-Nino (Makarieva and her colleagues have researched how the biotic pump affects these large scale circulations), how they affect jet streams which create extreme weather, and how they affect weather teleconnections between different continents. When we are able to clarify rank 6 phenomena is probably the point when we really begin to understand the self-regulatory circuit of the eco-climate-water system, and how a healthy earth can regulate extreme weather, global temperature changes, and ecosystem perturbations.
Lets look at another example of a water web.
In the 1950’s and early 1960s the future of the Serengeti was in doubt, and a rallying cry emerged - the “Serengeti shall not die”. Ecologists and the community alike wondered how they could save the ecosystem.
Then as the 1960s progressed, the wildebeest and the hippopotamus began increasing in number. ‘What was happening?’ the ecologists wondered. After some research, they figured out that the increase had to do with the eradication of a livestock virus. Previously that virus had been passed on from the cows, and was killing a lot of the wildebeest and hippotamus.
As the wildebeest keep growing in number over the next two decades, doubling from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand, then doubling again to four hundred thousand, and then doubling yet again, some of the park wardens became very worried. Would the wildebeest eat up all the vegetation? Should they work on limiting the number of wildebeest?
Ecologist Tony Sinclair argued that since the wildebeest had previously been at those numbers, it should be ok for the wildebeest to return to previous population levels. He eventually won out after much debate, and they decided not to intervene with the wildebeest.
The wildebeest population grew some more, and eventually stabilized at about 1.1 million. They did not destroy the landscape. Instead, over the ensuing decades, quite the opposite happened. To the ecologists surprise, the woodlands and trees grew back.
Why was this happening? After some pondering, they figured out that the wildebeests were eating up enough grass so that the fires, which used to sweep across the savannah, no longer could happen as easily. Saplings could now grow into large trees without being burnt down.
This behavior, was in fact, not unique to the Serengeti. Perusal of the global historical record will show that the disappearance of megafauna has often been accompanied with an increase in fires.
The ecologists had figured out an intriguing causality chain. The livestock virus was impacting the wildebeest which was impacting the grass which was impacting the fires which was impacting the growth of trees. The wildebeest were, they concluded, a keystone species in the African ecosystem.
The causality chain does not have end here though, it also extends into the atmosphere. The ecologists because of their training, hadn’t thought to look in that direction.
Extending the causality chain, shows that the woodlands also help to create rain, and increase precipitation-recycling/small-water-cycling. The increase of rain leads to an increase of water in the watering holes.
The increase of water in the watering holes affects wildebeest migration. Wildebeest, every year go on mass migrations - an extraordinary spectacle of a million horned, black-striped, brown-furred animals moving across the landscape. The timing of the migrations happen, some ecologists think, as the water level drops, and the salinity in the watering holes increases to a level distasteful to the wildebeest. So how the woodlands affects the rain affects the when and where of these mass migrations. These migrations in turn then affects where woodlands develop.
In this water web, we have the grammatical eco-weather structures : ‘megafauna fire prevention increases woodland small water cycle’, and ‘woodland small water cycle affects megafauna migration’.
The wildebeest is not just a keystone species for the ecosystem, but for the climate as well. As a key player in the restoration of the water cycle, perhaps they could be called a ‘waterstone species’. Traditionally we may think planting trees is the key to restoration of the woodlands and forests, but actually, in certain bioregions, the restoration of megafauna herbivores that eat grass, but not tree saplings, may be the key act, the proper acupoint to pursue. That’s not to say we shouldn’t also plant saplings, but that that act would not be useful by itself if there was not some way to reduce the fires that destroy those saplings.
Ecology can intersect more with atmospheric science via hydrology. One of the key problems in ecology is understanding the population dynamics in an ecosystem. Ecologists create population dynamical equations that model predator and prey relationships, and that model species response to different weather conditions. But what they don’t usually include in their equations is that population affects the weather. In addition to the predator-prey cycles and animal-vegetation cycles, with species population going up and down repeatedly, there are also predator-prey-rain cycles, and animal-vegetation-rain cycles. The animals affect the rain, and the rain affects the animals through various length causal chains, in a dynamical feedback loop. These could be put into the form of a population dynamics differential equation.
The rewilding of the Serengeti shows the key role megafauna play in bringing back the rain. Megafauna restoration may also be key to other tropical forest-rain restoration efforts across Central Africa. At the same time there may also be some other key pattern and water web that enable the forest restoration in those other bioregions. There are eco-social-government activation chains, analogous to the water web activation chains, that may stop villagers cutting down trees and instead have them invested in the growth of trees. There are eco-social-government activation chains that may stop some of the mining devastation that leads to ecosystems getting destroyed. It is about figuring out which ecosocial acupoints to push that activates self-assembly and regulation of human activities so they are more in tune with nature.
If enough forests get restored across Central Africa then the evapotranspiration from all these forests could then moisture hop northwards, in large enough amounts to help lessen the speed with which the Sahara Desert is expanding, providing another de-desertification strategy that complements the Great Green Wall of Africa project.
North America has some interesting examples of water webs.
In Yellowstone National Park, in order to restore the aspen which was being eaten by the elk, the ecologists reintroduced wolves to eat the elk. Their maneuver succeeded, and the aspen rebounded. But the causality chain did not end there.
With more trees, the beavers then increased in number, which increased the number of dams and wetlands, which then provided more hydration for the whole ecosystem.
This hydration can help decrease the drought-fire-flood cycle (Zach Weiss calls this the watershed death spiral). The increased hydration of the ecology, along with the increase in wetlands and aquifer water helps lessen the drying of vegetation, which lessens fires. The beaver created wetlands and richer soil can help lessen floods as they slow and absorb stormwater. The increased small water cycle can lessen the magnitude and duration of droughts.
The ‘apex predator-beaver-tree-wetland-rain’ water web pattern can be applied to many places where the beaver is native, and where drought, fire, and flood natural disasters are happening, to help shift from the watershed death spiral to the restoration water cycle.
These water web patterns could also be extended to deal with the Colorado River situation in the USA. Many states in the western USA want much more water than the Colorado River can supply. If we can do large scale reforestration and wetland restoration in the western USA then moisture hopping from all these areas could increase the amount of rain falling into the Colorado River. There are many bioregions where the introduction of an apex predator like the wolf, combined with beaver restoration efforts, would increase tree and wetland amount. Other bioregions might use some variations of this approach, say herbivore holistic grazing practices combined with beaver restoration. Other bioregions might use altogether different methodologies, like Rodger Savory’s cow poop and fungi water web approach to regenerating desert areas, an approach he wants to apply to the Imperial Valley desert in Southern California. In forests where beetle infestation are a problem, there may be some way to activate a causal chain to help de-stress the forest, strengthen its resilience, and increase its immunization through biodiversity. In places where floods and glacier melts have destroyed the trees, there maybe other causal chains to set in motion to enable nature’s ability to restore the forests.
There are billions and billions of dollars spent to deal with damage and issues from fire, floods, and drought. Some of that money can be used to by back land. Ecorestoration of large amounts of land would help the eco-climate system deal holistically with a whole set of natural disaster and water scarcity issues.
Another project which can be mapped out into the form of a water web is the ‘Regreening the Sinai’ desert project.
The Sinai was once a flourishing ecosystem, but is now a vast ochre and goldenrod yellow colored desert. Ties van der Hoeven, a Dutch eco-dredger, leads a team that includes climate scientist Millan Millan, ecologist John Todd, and eco-ringleader John Liu that is restoring this ancient biblical land. (See my interview with Ties here). They are taking dredged sediment from the lake at the edge of the desert land, and putting it through aquaponic feedback loops and vegetation cycles to transform it into rich, desalinated soil, that they then grow vegetation in. The soil and budding trees are then transported and placed in the desert to activate an autocatalytic hydro-loop.
The large amount of trees that will be planted in the Sinai can slow and bring down the water vapor that blows in from the Mediterranean Sea. Millan Millan calculates that, in general, a six by six mile reforested piece of land should activate the bringing down of the rain.
The team believes that when the water vapor is not brought down, it blows out to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean where it can help create hurricanes. ‘Healthy land ecosystems bringing down water vapor via rain, lessens hurricanes’ is a higher level phenomena that atmospheric physicists Anastasia Makarieva and Andre Nefiokov (see this video), and hydrologist Michal Kravcik propose happens. (Hydrologist Sieger Burger discusses these hurricane issues in his blog.) Its not yet, though, a commonly accepted thesis in mainstream meteorology.
The wind slows down when rain forms. When that water then evapotranspires it moisture hops into Africa and the Middle East, increasing the rains there. Millan Millan has done research work studying how the water vapor brought down when it blows across continental divides, like Spain or the Sinai, can then moisture hop to neighboring land masses.
We can map out all the Sinai interactions into a water web:
The study of how these water webs self-assemble, and how fungi, microorganisms, vegetation and animals self-organize to regulate the climate and ecosystem via the water cycle, is a field of study. Perhaps this field could be called Water Ecology.
There are numerous questions that arise, some of them speculative. How would evolution affect the ability of the nature to self-regulate? Since trees cool the landscape when they evapotranspire more, would natural selection choose trees that help keep the ecosystem in the best temperature range? Since mycelia funnel different amounts of nutrients and water to different trees, would natural selection help mycelia develop the ability to funnel to trees that keep the system in the best temparature range? Would animals evolve to eat vegetation in a way that helps regulate the temperature? Is there a fungi-vegetation-animal water web regulating temperature?
One the most surprising things I heard Anastasia Makarieva mention when I interviewed her about the biotic pump, was that there was a difference between a lake and a tree in terms of evapotranspiration behavior. A lake has only one way it can evapotranspire. A tree can change when it evapotranspires. It can evapotranspire more at the onset of the wet season to trigger the bringing on of the wet season. The biotic pump posits that the partial vacuum created by water condensing into clouds sucks in moisture carrying winds from the ocean. If it can suck in enough moisture that creates more condensation, then there develops a positive feedback loop that brings in more rain, so creating the wet season. The question arises if natural selection would select for trees that evapotranspire at the right time to bring in more rain. Would natural selection select for mycelia and animals that enable those trees with the right timing to survive better? Is there a fungi-vegetation-animal water web regulating evapotranspiration timing?
Even more speculatively, the question arises whether trees make a decision to change their timing and amount of evapotranspiration in order to regulate the temperature and rain. Trees have already been know to have some decision making ability - they are able to change the amount of they evapotranspire depending on if there had been droughts in previous years. Biologist Monica Gagliano experiments has shown that plants and trees exhibit learning and decision making behaviors, some in regards to adapting to changing wind and water environmental conditions.
In the same speculative vein, the question arises if mycelia can make decisions to funnel nutrients and water to those trees exhibiting evapotranspiration behavior that best guides the weather to values the mycelia likes. We already know mycelia can already make some decisions in how and to which trees it funnels nutrients and water to. Biologist Nicholas Money has written papers about mycelia’s decision making abilities. Andrew Adamatsky experiments seem to show that mycelia communicate electrically in a language that has up to 50 words. Are the mycelia processing information from its environment to affect trees evapotranspiration ability and thus affect the climate? Are the mycelia and trees forming a water web of climate regulation?
The timing of when fungi release their wind-carried, cloud-seeding spores can affect where and when rain happens. Would natural selection have selected certain fungi for the timing of their cloud-seeding behavior? Are there any fungi decision making processes involved determining timing? Fungi appear to be some of the first organisms to colonize the land, what mycelial behaviors allowed them to do this, did it do something to cause it to rain more over land eg. via the biotic pump?
There are questions about how resilient are these water webs to perturbations, if and how they can adjust the global temperature, if and how they modulate fire, and if and how they can dampen extreme fluctuations in rain and drought. These are questions may be answered as we understand how the lower level phenomena link together, to get higher level phenomena, how rank 1,2,3 behaviors emerge rank 4,5,6 behaviors, and how lower level eco-weather grammatical structures work together to create higher level eco-weather grammatical structures.
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*I later found out that Charles Elton was not the originator of the ecological niche, but that he had made important developments of the idea. I left it in the sentence that I thought he invented the idea of the ecological niche because that is part of what led me to try and invent a new concept.