Land and Sea Change for Earth Day, Expanding the Climate Change Narrative

Have you ever considered how our perspective of climate change might shift if we focused not just on the sky above us but also on the earth beneath our feet? On Earth Day, let’s explore the role of plants, soils, and climate moderation, a tale often overshadowed by the buzz of greenhouse gases.

Human activities are not only carbon loading the air with rising greenhouse gases and drastically altering our land and sea. We’re cutting down trees, scraping away topsoil, eroding the land, and suffocating wetlands and rivers with sediments. This disturbance is causing water to rush to the sea, carrying away homes and reshaping landscapes. Furthermore, freshwater warmed by the land is spilling out over the salty sea, giving the ocean more energy. This has led to an alarming increase in hurricane ferocity. Hurricanes that pass over open seas have been observed to strengthen from category 4 to 5 in just 24 hours, a fourfold increase in destructive power.

Increased greenhouse gases retain more heat, tipping the planetary heat exchange balance by an additional 1% (3 Watts per meter square). Like the doctor using a thermometer to measure a patient’s temperature, we measure degrees of climate change in parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxides.  Seeing the planetary fever rise, we slow the rise by pushing for net zero carbon emissions.

Feel The Grass Between Your Toes

In addition, expanding our efforts to address better water cycles, water vapor, and cloud cover will have immediate benefits to restoring the balance. To restore Earth’s health, we must address the splotches, rashes, and scars on the land and the bloating by hot surface waters on the sea.

Let’s roll up our sleeves this Earth Day and start in yards and neighborhoods with residential lawns. Natural grasses are the champions of restoration because they push out the highest proportion of carbohydrates; 50% of what is manufactured through photosynthesis uses the carbon dioxide pulled out of the air.  Grasslands co-evolved with hoofed animals that walk on their toenails to break up tough plant fibers. If not stomped, chewed, or cut, plants left fallow on top of the ground rot and gas out carbon dioxide.  By mowing our lawns, plant fibers are returned to the soil by springtails cutting, worms swallowing, and microbes, fungi, and bacteria digesting.

However, applying fertilizer to an established lawn disrupts this carbon nutrient cycle. It kills beneficial microbes and nematodes, destroying the living ecosystems we call soil. Without the manufactured nutrients and chemicals, roots can go deep and open the soil for oxygen, water, and life. A supportive network of fungi and bacteria spreads beneath the turf. Bacteria prepare nutrients and enzymes requested by the plants. The fungal mycorrhizal “wood wide web” connects plants to bacteria.

A natural lawn can build an inch of soil per year.  Sticky carbohydrates hold minerals far apart. So much so that four inches of soil can hold seven inches of rain. Soils with more carbon are deeper to protect homes from extreme weather events. It’s been found that retaining water in our landscapes could potentially reduce sea level rise by 25%. Increasing soil depth benefits everyone, and healthy plants pull down more carbon dioxide to further reduce greenhouse gases.

Look To The Trees

Let’s take a walk into the role of forests to see climate moderation. Picture an 80-year-old forest. Majestic, isn’t it? Now, you might be surprised to learn that this mature forest holds more than double the volume of carbon and water than a forest half its age. When the heat of the day rises, plants in these forests release water vapor, which evaporates and cools the surrounding air. Conversely, during the coldest hour before dawn, these same plants release water vapor that condenses into morning dew, simultaneously releasing heat.

Our old-growth forests are also the source of large volumes of bacteria and fungi that drift through the air. This organic matter serves as nucleation sites for water vapor to form cumulus clouds. These fluffy white clouds play a vital role in reflecting the Sun’s energy back into space, cooling our planet.

However, we’ve tipped the balance and seen a decline in cumulus cloud cover due to deforestation. Less than 50% of the Earth is now covered by these cool clouds. But the story doesn’t end with the plants and forests. The water vapor released by plants also plays a part in moderating climates. When this vapor condenses into mist, an exothermic reaction occurs and results in a drop in air pressure. This drop acts as a biotic pump, pulling moist air from elsewhere. As this moisture moves away from the ocean, its energy decreases. It’s a simple equation: where forests stand, energy is drawn away from the ocean, and the fury of seas will be reduced.

Become Part Of Life’s Web

Our ecosystems, both on land and in the sea, are intricately interconnected and cycle carbon, nitrogen, and water. Small changes can lead to significant effects. For instance, reducing the use of poisons in our yards will slow the loss of phytoplankton in the sea, providing more food for migrating whales.

The difference between today’s carbon dioxide levels (420 ppm) and a more optimal level (350 ppm) is equivalent to 100 billion tons. Removing that much carbon might sound like a monumental task. However, the world’s soil holds 2800 billion tons of carbon, and all the world’s plants and animals hold 564 billion tons of carbon. An increase of just 4% in vegetation and water-retaining healthy soil would be sufficient to offset this difference and restore the balance.

So, as we celebrate Earth Day, let’s remember the crucial role that our forests, plants, and soil play in climate moderation. By halting deforestation and promoting the growth of vegetation and healthy soils, we can help restore the health of our planet. For this Earth Day, let’s reconsider the traditional perspective on climate change and look at the whole picture by expanding the narrative for the sake of our Earth

About The Author

Dr. Rob Moir is a nationally-recognized and award-winning environmentalist. He is president and executive director of Cambridge, MA-based Ocean River Institute, a nonprofit providing expertise, services, resources, and information unavailable on a localized level to support the efforts of environmental organizations. Please visit www.oceanriver.org for more information.



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