NAWAPA and Biospheric Engineering
November 17, 2010 • 5:30PM


The following is a transcript of the video, with a selection of annotated references. Please direct comments or questions to [email protected]

The NAWAPA project represents the greatest engineering feat in human history. It also represents the fundamental first step toward the conscious reorganization of the earth's biosphere, an evolutionary transition that is absolutely necessary for the human species.1LPAC, “NAWAPA, from the Standpoint of Biospheric Development.”

In the shorter term, it's also the only meaningful solution to the water crisis in the United States. Across the country, aquifers are running down. In the arid west, supplies are running so low that farmers are fighting cities for access to water. And the Colorado River, which literally keeps a major part of the southwestern united states alive, is stretched to the limit.

Some people say that the only solution is to cut back water use. Population growth, especially in these arid regions, they say, is unsustainable. Not a very creative solution. It's time that we redefine the meaning of the word “sustainable.”

After all, looked at from the standpoint of a relatively fixed technological platform, human population anywhere is unsustainable. It's only when we fail to constantly move to higher levels of physical-economic infrastructure, that we run into what seem to be the limits of nature.

When it comes to water, those limits begin with rainfall. Right now, the massive surplus precipitation in the Northwest flows as freshwater runoff into the oceans. If a fraction of that were redirected through NAWAPA, we could open up millions of acres of the North American continent to irrigation. That could also be expanded if nuclear power replaced some of the original hydropower requirements, freeing up water flows for distribution. For just the 7-state region of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the system would deliver, minimally, 60-million acre feet. Imagine the equivalent of 3 more California central valleys spread across the southwest, along with thousands of acres of new forests.

Despite what environmentalists say, it is the physical-economic development of the human species which gives us insight into the fundamental principles of nature. Every so-called environmental problem today can be traced to a failure to develop new technologies or apply existing ones. Every problem attributed to overpopulation, is nothing but the product of underdevelopment.

The proper approach to managing the environment is an application of Vladimir Vernadsky's science of the biosphere, or what must soon become the physical-economic science of biospheric engineering.

The Evolution of the Biosphere

Let's take the case of water.

Liquid water is the most important substance for life on this planet.

In fact, living organisms themselves helped create the atmospheric conditions for a stable liquid hydrosphere on earth billions of years ago. Ever since, the hydrosphere, along with the biosphere, has shaped every aspect of the environment, as it circulates through the air, across the surface, and beneath the ground.

The water cycle at the earth's surface is dominated by evaporation and precipitation from the oceans.
But, from the standpoint of the evolution of the biosphere as a whole, the advent of trees and leafy plants during the Devonian Era around 400 million years ago was a big step forward for the assimilation of the hydrological cycle by life itself. Trees captured moist air beneath their canopies, bringing moisture farther inland and allowing the spread of plant life across the ancient landscape. Root systems helped to create moisture-absorbing soils by breaking up surface rocks. Reaching deep, they sucked up water to be transpired into the air through openings in the plant's leaves. These leaves themselves were designed with the maximum surface area possible to capture the rays of the sun, at the same time allowing them to give off more vapor than the ground they covered.

Subsurface water interacts closely with surface flows, and over geological time, and in conjunction with the products of living organisms, water shaped the lithosphere, helping to create the thousands of minerals in the crust, as well as the bedrock of the continents themselves.2Rosing, et al., “The rise of continents—An essay on the geologic consequences of photosynthesis.”

The deep crust is still a mystery, but water seems to play an important role there as well. For example, free water was found saturating the rocks miles beneath the surface, in the deepest hole ever drilled by man, but, without any clear explanation of where it came from. The late Australian scientist Lance Endersbee, studying the artesian waters of Australia, had theorized that water continually surfaces from the bottom of the crust, and feeds aquifers that are normally thought to be recharged only by rainfall. If this were true, it would add a new dimension to our understanding of the water cycle.3Lance Endersbee, A Voyage of Discovery. On the nature of biospheric activity in the deep crust, see also Thomas Gold, The Deep Hot Biosphere, and his earlier paper by the same name.

In any case, the water cycle, considered from the standpoint of the whole biosphere, gives us a glimpse of one of the primary drivers of what Vernadsky called the biogenic migration of atoms.

For one thing, water molecules are constantly being broken apart and regenerated as they interact with the biosphere and lithosphere, not to mention the agricultural and industrial processing of water by the noosphere.4Water is dissociated during photosynthesis, and the oxygen released as free oxygen to the atmosphere, while plants, animals, and bacteria, regenerate water as a byproduct of respiration. Also, many materials, such as the aluminosilicate rocks abundant in the crust, dissociate water during their dissolution. In addition, as water travels through the atmosphere, encounters plants and soils, and percolates through rocks in the crust, it continually absorbs and deposits dissolved gases, organic material, and minerals.

This biogenic flow of material through the hydrosphere is sustained by the radiation of the sun, but is also dependent on galactic factors as well. For example, the role of cosmic ray fluxes on cloud formation.

This biogenic flow is more than a repetitive cycle, or a steady state system. In fact, Vernadsky—citing the work of Bernhard Riemann, Pierre Curie, and Louis Pasteur—demonstrated that the cycling of atoms through individual organisms involves a transformation of the physical space-time organization of matter itself in the living versus the non-living state. However this distinction might be expressed in the biosphere as a whole, the effect over geological history has been a constant evolution of the biosphere as a whole to higher states of organization.5Vernadsky, “The Physical States of Space,” “Problems of Biogeochemistry II: On the Fundamental Material-Energetic Distinction Between Living and Nonliving Natural Bodies of the Biosphere.”

This evolutionary process is tied directly to the hydrological cycle, which acts on the planet from the upper reaches of the atmosphere, across the entire surface, and down into the entire crust.

But, left on its own, this evolutionary process is limited. Just look at how unevenly rainfall is distributed around the world, where the driest desert lies adjacent to the richest rainforest. Or, consider the ebb and flow of ice ages, which lock up huge amounts of ocean water in a virtually inert state. In fact, we may be entering an ice age soon, which will be devastating for the biosphere, unless human beings intervene—potentially, through our control of the planet's hydrological cycle.

Greening the Deserts

One of the most immediate questions related to NAWAPA and its global extensions, concerns the effect of greening the deserts: of converting large arid regions into crop and forestland.

We know, for example, that extensive irrigation in California's central valley, and other arid regions of the country, has helped to moderate local temperatures and increase local atmospheric moisture. The same will be true with expanded irrigation across the Great American Desert, in places like the fertile soils of Arizona. In addition to food crops, if the planting of dense, new forests were factored in, how would that change the balance of local or regional climatic effects?

It's also possible that evapotranspiration of crop and forestland, by contributing to atmospheric moisture and by lowering land surface temperatures, could trigger larger-scale effects by interfacing with seasonal weather patterns.6NASA animation, “Evapotranspiration from Landsat."For example, the greening of significant portions of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico could affect the North American Monsoon rains, which move northward from the western slopes of Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains beginning in early summer, where the vegetation turns from virtual desert conditions to near tropical rain forest conditions in a matter of weeks, and then into New Mexico and Arizona from July to September.7NOAA, The North American Monsoon. Also, Gordon et al. discuss the possible effects of human-induced vapor flow changes on the Asian Monsoon in "Human modification of global water flows from the land surface."

On a global scale, what would the greening of the Sahara, and all the great deserts of the world, do for the planet as a whole? Ultimately, the existence of anthropogenic climate change won't be something we debate. It will become something we consciously work to create.8LPAC, “Solar Cells vs. Plant Cells: In Defense of Chlorophyll.”

To do that, there's a lot we'll have to learn about the fundamental processes of regulation in the biosphere.

In the Amazon, studies have shown a close link between forest cover and the kind of clouds that bring precipitation. Deforested areas clearly produced thinner, weaker clouds, while the thicker, rain-producing clouds formed over the heavily forested areas.9Rafael Bras, “Planet Water: Complexity and Organization in Earth Systems.” In an unrelated study, a pair of Russian researchers have theorized that thick, coastal forests can act as a biotic pump, drawing in moisture-rich air from the oceans far into the interiors of the continents, which could have important implications for reforestation projects around the world.10Makarieva & Gorshkov, “Biotic pump of atmospheric moisture as driver of the hydrological cycle on land.”

There's also much to learn about the process of cloud formation itself, which will require better estimates of atmospheric moisture, and more remote sensing satellites such as the ones NASA has recently been using to investigate the 3 dimensional structure of clouds for the first time. There are also important questions about the role of living organisms in directly regulating the process of cloud condensation, and therefore, precipitation.

The majority of clouds over the oceans are thought to condense around tiny aerosol particles pumped out by phytoplankton. There are also certain bacteria, whose life cycles depend on land plants, which are not only abundant in the regions of the atmosphere where cloud formation occurs, but they also happen to be the most active agents of ice nucleation, which is a process fundamental for cloud formation.11New York Times, "From Trees and Grass, Bacteria That Cause Snow and Rain."

Coming back to the Amazon, recent studies have shown that the trees themselves produce the organic aerosols that are likely playing the role of cloud condensation nuclei, helping in the recycling of moisture throughout the Amazon basin. Only further study will tell us how significant bioprecipitation might be.

Given the questions that still surround cloud formation, the close connection between between earth weather and so-called space weather also can't be ignored.12LPAC, “NAWAPA and Cosmic Radiation.”

The Danish scientist Henrik Svensmark'smark's showed how atmospheric ionization produced by galactic cosmic rays helps initiate cloud formation, which points to one aspect of the cosmic influences over climate.13Svensmark & Calder,The Chilling Stars. But what about the earth's electrically charged ionosphere, which connects the earth's atmosphere to the charged plasma of the solar wind? What role might this interaction play on cloud formation? How significant might these effects be in the electromagnetically active polar region in the north, which NAWAPA and related projects will open for development?14LPACTV, “The Extended NAWAPA: Arctic Development.”

NAWAPA: Towards a New Science

What we've touched on here are only some of the considerations posed by NAWAPA, and these questions lead on to others: Such as, how will we one day re-create an active hydrological cycle on Mars?

To take responsibility for managing biospheric processes in the ways demanded by NAWAPA, takes us into the domain of a new science. The study of things like climate will finally become experimental, rather than simply descriptive sciences, based on computer models. We will need the cooperation of meteorologists, geologists, biologists, hydrologists, engineers, atmospheric scientists, biogeochemists, soil scientists, and many others. Only by acting on nature, and seeing how it responds, will we learn more about how it works, and improve our capability to direct its evolution.

Of course, NAWAPA's most lasting impact on the environment won't be on the land, the water, or the air. The revival of dying industrial and agricultural communities, well-designed, beautifully-constructed new cities, the transformation of inhospitable regions into livable environments: all of that will secure the foundation not just for the growth of human populations, but the development of more productive, more creative, human beings. These future generations will apply the principles of biospheric engineering not just to our own planet, but to the solar system as a whole.

That is the only, truly sustainable policy.

Footnotes

2Rosing, et al., “The rise of continents—An essay on the geologic consequences of photosynthesis.”
3Lance Endersbee, A Voyage of Discovery. On the nature of biospheric activity in the deep crust, see also Thomas Gold, The Deep Hot Biosphere, and his earlier paper by the same name.
4Water is dissociated during photosynthesis, and the oxygen released as free oxygen to the atmosphere, while plants, animals, and bacteria, regenerate water as a byproduct of respiration. Also, many materials, such as the aluminosilicate rocks abundant in the crust, dissociate water during their dissolution
7NOAA, The North American Monsoon. Also, Gordon et al. discuss the possible effects of human-induced vapor flow changes on the Asian Monsoon in "Human modification of global water flows from the land surface."
13Svensmark & Calder,The Chilling Stars.