KISS, for us, isn't just an admirable principle, it's almost a way of life. We want to keep things as simple as possible, since they are going to get complex enough eventually anyway, and we hate that.
But sometimes life is just complex, and there's nothing we can do about it.
So, what has prompted this rumination on my part?
Well, suddenly everyone has become aware that the Amazon rainforest is burning. This isn't new, of course. We should have been aware that the rainforest was burning some time ago. It's been burning for quite a while. But, hey, so what? There have been forest fires in other places, and we've survived. And most of us don't even know anyone who speaks Portuguese, so what's the problem?
To understand that, you need to know about geology.
There are different types of soils in the world. They have different components, one of which is regolith. Regolith is the breakdown product of the underlying rock. It contributes elements which, in turn, fix or release nutrients that plants need to grow. There are different soils, but they all have regolith.
Except for tropical soil.
The soil in the Amazon rainforest has so little contribution from regolith that it doesn't matter. So how do things grow, without the nutrient boost?
To understand that, you need to understand biology and ecology.
Trees grow in the tropical rainforest. Other plants grow on the trees. Because they have no roots, they collect water in pouches and cups. The water, as well as watering the plant, collects and kills bugs to get nutrients that those plants use to grow. The insects eat fruit and leaves up in the trees. Other animals eat fruit and drop the husks and leaves down to the ground. The leaf litter gets cut up by ants who use it to farm mold. Et cetera, et cetera until we get back to the trees. All of the huge complicated process has to go on to provide nutrients for the tropical soil, without which none of it lives.
That's why ten percent of the total biodiversity on the planet is in the Amazon alone. They need it.
Stand in a hemlock forest, and all you have is the canopy above you. Except for the dead branches that poke you and grab your clothes, there is nothing to impede you below that. Tropical rainforests have five separate and distinct layers, starting at the top canopy.
But what does this have to do with the fires?
Well, we (most of us) live in temperate rainforests. We don't understand the problem with forest fires. Fires go on all the time. Fires are actually useful in some ways. In the eastern forests, the First Nations used to set fires to make the land more productive. In the west, we know that, even if we weren't throwing cigarette butts around with gay abandon, the storms from the ocean (that bring the rain), also bring thunderstorms, and therefore lightning, and therefore, even without us, forest fires are a natural part of the forest growth, ecology, and procession.
That's not the case in tropical rainforests.
In temperate rainforests, after the fire goes through, all we have to do is plant douglas fir, and, within a few years, the trees are taller than we are and there are mice and salal and mule deer and blackberries and bears are pooping in the woods fertilizing the douglas fir.
(And we have to hurry to plant the douglas fir, because, if we don't, five minutes after the fire goes through alder starts growing. We'll still have a forest, just with a different economic value.)
That's not the case in tropical rainforests.
After a fire, you can't just plant some trees. You've got this whole complex system that means that the fact that some insect you can't even name is missing means that that frog doesn't pollinate that bush which doesn't feed that fish and the whole thing falls apart. (Or, more likely, doesn't start in the first place.)
In the tropical forest, after a fire, the grass (and crops, if you plant them), grow spectacularly. The first year. The second year, the grass is great. The third year, it's pretty good. After that, it's crap. Because the system isn't putting anything back into the soil.
In the temperate rainforest, the rains come from the ocean. (Remember?) Even if we burned down all the trees, the rains would still come. Not in the tropical rainforest. Most of the rain comes from the forest itself. The trees are lifting tons of water into the atmosphere every day. It takes energy. And that's part of the reason that tropical rainforests have so much rain, and are four or five degrees cooler than tropical savannah.
If we leave burned areas in the tropics alone, they might recover. But, whereas in the temperate rainforests it takes years, in the tropics it takes an equivalent number of millennia. The soil is dead, the land is in drought, and isolated stands of forest will probably die, unless they are miles in extent.
OK, now look at a map of the world. Can you find the Amazon? Remember that not all of that bump is, in fact, the Amazon. Not even all of Brazil is all Amazon. And that part of that bump recycles 20% of all the oxygen in the atmosphere. And when we lose that oxygen recycling capacity, we lose that carbon sequestration capacity, all that rain, and that biodiversity (and all the undiscovered pharmaceuticals it contains). And it won't grow back.
That's why a few fires in another country far away are important ...
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