State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Sea of Green

A tremendously varied but uniformly rich wooded landscape once existed on over forty percent of the American landmass. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Samuel Barnes

What we call forest—addressing it simply as an object in space—is in fact an ever-shifting process, a living and breathing colony possessed of a body, a purpose, and a lifespan—at once noun, a verb, an adjective. It is subject to disturbance, injury, growth and recovery. Like those species that call it home, the landscape cycles from youth to life to death and again to rebirth over decades and centuries. For hundreds of millions of years, the verdant ecosystems grew and differentiated thanks to climate and isolation, and came to cover much of the Earth’s terrain. In these budding, bristling eons of development, the forests came to be the lungs of the organic Earth, an incredible organ that generates a bounty of oxygen and a great regulator of global climate patterns.

Like much of the rest of the Earth, the expansion of global human civilization in the past four centuries has ushered in a period of profound transition for the world’s woodlands—and particularly for those that once spread their roots and vines across the Americas. Once, the forest extended along the Atlantic from Hudson Bay to the Rio Plata in a nearly unbroken chain. Diverse flora and fauna densely inhabited the land, and over thousands of miles the ecosystem shifted from boreal to deciduous to tropical rain and tropical dry, and formed incredible niches in the form of bogs, steppes, and lush river valleys. At the time of first European contact, it has been estimated that over 50 million humans lived of and in this great wilderness, utilizing its wealth of food, material, and natural energy to build societies that by-and-large existed in harmony with their environment. Over many thousands of years of habitation, regular burnings of the underbrush became a symbiotic element in millions of acres of woods.

After Columbus’ arrival, a strange thing began to happen: those forests, so well managed as a supply of food and forage for humans, began to turn to deep, dark, unusable jungle. The men and women who had learned to live off of the land were dying at alarming rates due to imported disease; they were phenotypically unequipped to survive. Their ancient, adaptive burnings stopped– and the global climate changed. As we witnessed in this anomalous winter of 2012, air currents that gather and disperse from the Gulf of Mexico, sifting north and east across the ocean, regulate weather on both sides of the Atlantic. Closely corresponding to the indigenous die-off in the Americas was a time in Europe that came to be known as the Little Ice Age, and recent research suggests that the timing was no mere coincidence.

The Gulf Stream regulates temperatures on both sides of the Atlantic, transporting heat from the American Tropics to Europe. (Wikimedia Commons)

As American forests became larger and thicker, and thusly trapped a greater amount of atmospheric CO2, heat that had been making its way to Europe via the Atlantic Gulf Stream was funneled into the American soil, suddenly devoid of human cultures equipped to make use of it. Centuries before the concentrated extraction and burning of fossil fuels that has so profoundly altered the composition of the atmosphere began, a shift in the way one continent’s resources were managed is believed to have significantly altered the global climate. As the exploitation and emission of greenhouse gases, the exponential growth of human populations, and the shortsighted destruction of wild places—in particularly the rich and vital forests of the tropics—continues unabated, the effect on climate can only increase. We have witnessed, in the last twelve months, records set in all directions: hot and cold, droughts and floods. The projections call for more of the same—wild oscillations between climatological extremes.

But hope remains, as we dive deeper into the wisdom left by the hundreds of generations of our human ancestors who preceded the recent age of industry and exploitation. Approximately 50 million people lived successfully off of the Eastern forest circa 1492, without steel or gas or automation. It has recently been confirmed that the incredibly fecund Terra Preta (black earth) of the Amazon basin was a man-made technology that can be replicated and propagated around the world. Some of our culture’s finest minds have apprenticed themselves to the scientific knowledge latent in the land, and engaged the dynamic, ex-static nature of our Earth’s ecology. One by one, we witness the crisis, discover its cause, and, at last, begin to move the in the way the woods tell us.

This Spring, CERC is offering a course in Forest Management and Conservation introducing several key issues in forest ecology and management through a local lens. Students will participate in a day long trip to Black Rock Forest and study how pathogens and other invasive species affect forest structure and function. Forest conservation will also be considered on a global scale.

The course is being offered as part of CERC’s Certificate Program in Environmental Sustainability, and can be taken on an individual basis or as part of the 12 course Certificate Program. Please visit the CERC website for more information or contact CERC for more information at or (212) 854-0149.

Samuel Barnes is an intern at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation.

Source: Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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Rob Mutch
Rob Mutch
11 years ago

Very interesting write-up. Thanks for sharing.

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