Scientists Take Radical Gaia Hypothesis Out of the Closet

Times Staff Writer

For climate researcher Richard C. J. Somerville, a cloud does more than spoil a picnic. For geochemist Robin Keir, tiny one-celled plants floating in the sea are more than food for whales.

The two scientists at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography see both as parts of an emerging picture of how climate and life influence each other--and what that might mean for the planet’s future.

A small change in cloud cover can cool the Earth, a phenomenon that may account for the fact that the carbon-dioxide-induced global warming known as the “greenhouse effect” has not been as severe as otherwise would be expected, Somerville has found. And one-celled phytoplankton may have helped cool the climate during the last Ice Age by consuming carbon dioxide faster than volcanoes could release it, Keir suggests.


Somerville and Keir described their research at a decidedly unconventional conference at the San Diego Princess resort last week, the Chapman Conference on the Gaia Hypothesis.

Named after the Greek Earth goddess, Gaia is a controversial notion that Earth is a living organism whose parts work together--much as those in a human body do--to sustain life on the planet. It represents a radical departure from the traditional view of living things as passively reacting to their physical environment.

‘The Breath and Bones’

“The air, the oceans and the rocks are all either made by living organisms, or else changed by their presence,” the father of Gaia, British scientist James Lovelock, has written. “Organisms do not just ‘adapt’ to a dead world determined by physics and chemistry alone. They live with a world that is the breath and bones of their ancestors and that they are now sustaining.”

In such a framework, clouds that cool off the planet or microorganisms that consume carbon dioxide play a critical role.

Although born in the shadow of the awakening environmental movement in the early 1970s, and nurtured mostly since then by a collection of what one scientist called “ecofreaks,” Gaia came out of the closet with a flourish at last week’s meeting.

There to greet her was an international collection of noted atmospheric, earth and biological scientists who met to debate the merits of an idea that many of them have derided for years.

That the meeting was held at all by the American Geophysical Union was a source of embarrassment for and criticism from some scientists who declined to attend.

“Gaia has no scientific basis. . . . It has no business being the subject of a Chapman conference,” wrote Wallace Broecker, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in a letter to a conference organizer, Stephen H. Schneider, who heads the climate systems research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

‘Important in Poetic Sense’

But Schneider was unruffled--especially since the meeting did attract 162 scientists, including some of the shining lights of geophysical research.

“These are members of the National Academy of Sciences. These are not flakes,” Schneider said. “And they’re coming because they too think Gaia should come out of the fringes.”

Stanford University population biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, who discounted Gaia in a keynote address, said nevertheless that Lovelock has made a significant contribution with his ideas.

“I think what will come out of it is that the hypothesis has been very important in a poetic sense, of calling attention to the importance of organisms to the entire global environment,” Ehrlich said.

Indeed, it was that underlying concept of the Earth as one unified system that apparently drew so many noted researchers together to argue--sometimes contentiously--over specific aspects of the Gaia hypothesis:

If the Earth is a living organism, what are its boundaries? How does one solve the chicken-egg proposition of whether an organism’s evolutionary adaptation caused a change in the environment or resulted from it? If different forms of life are cooperating to keep Gaia healthy, will one life form “sacrifice” itself for the good of another--as when ancient oxygen-hating bacteria produced so much oxygen that they could no longer live in most of the world? (This same oxygen made life as we know it possible.)

Some Versions Testable

Is the Gaia idea more of an intuitive metaphysical concept than a scientific hypothesis that can be tested?

Nearly everyone has a different idea about what the Gaia hypothesis is. Lovelock’s idea of life as purposefully changing its environment to promote the overall well-being of the planet cannot be tested scientifically, the gathering agreed.

But other versions of the hypothesis are closer to being testable. Lovelock collaborator Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist at Boston University, gave this one:

“The atmosphere and probably the surface sediments of the planet Earth are regulated by the biota, the sum of all the living organisms. Specifically, the composition of the reactive gases, the acidity-alkalinity, the temperature, the salinity of the oceans, the deposition of metal ores like gold and iron, and maybe even aspects of plate tectonics may also be affected and in fact even regulated by the biota.”

Some colleagues could, and did, quibble with Margulis’ definition. But, whatever version of the Gaia concept is used, it does provide a useful backdrop, they said, for the new and rapidly growing field of studying global systems.

From Micro to Macro

Over the last few years, more scientists who formerly concentrated on the minutiae of their fields have turned from a micro to a macro view, made possible largely by powerful computers that allow them to create “models” of systems. For example, a climate researcher such as Scripps’ Somerville can take basic knowledge of how clouds form and how much light they reflect, and plug it into a model to see how a change in cloudiness would affect the Earth’s temperature.

In climate research, scientists not only want to know the answer to such broad questions but also to discover how different climate mechanisms get turned on and off.

In developing the Gaia concept, Lovelock and Margulis theorized that Gaia takes care of herself through “feedback loops” that can intensify or ease the effects of environmental changes. Much of the meeting involved looking at apparent feedback loops that have emerged so far.

Most notable among them was the role of phytoplankton as a natural thermostat regulating the planet’s temperature.

A research group led by Robert J. Charlson at the University of Washington reported last year that these one-celled oceanic plants were producing a gas that was the primary source over the ocean of cloud condensation nuclei, the tiny particles around which cloud droplets form.

Environmental Urgency

The microscopic plants can, in effect, cool themselves off by producing more of the dimethylsulfide gas and make the sky above them cloudier. Because so little is known about individual phytoplankton species, no one knows yet whether the resulting cooler temperatures and lower light level turn the phytoplankton’s gas-making machinery down. That would have to be shown before an entire feedback cycle would be proved.

But, in terms of Gaia, even this preliminary evidence of one-celled organisms serving a planetary purpose is considered significant. It also gives urgency to environmentalists’ concerns that all organisms have a role to play in keeping the world habitable.

“Earth would be several degrees warmer if all the phytoplankton were killed off,” Charlson said.

There is also speculation that, perhaps, phytoplankton-induced cloudiness is why the man-made buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere so far has warmed the planet only half as much as computer models would otherwise predict.

But--lest anyone think that revving up the phytoplankton will turn off the greenhouse effect--geophysicist Glenn Shaw of the University of Alaska warns that such a strategy might result in drought. “The finer-dropped cloud that’s produced is less likely to rain,” he pointed out.

Opposing Examples

Other pieces of feedback loops discussed at the meeting included:

- Larger algae in the ocean produce methyl iodide gas, which, it has been suggested, plays a major role in oxidizing the dimethylsulfide into the particles around which the cloud droplets form.

- Venus and Mars provide opposing examples of the importance of geological processes in the Earth’s carbon dioxide cycle, which is thought to regulate the planet’s temperature and make it habitable.

In the cycle, insulating carbon dioxide is dissolved by rain, then stored in carbonate rocks. Erosion restores the mineral to the ocean, where it is incorporated into animal shells, drops to the bottom of the sea and is subducted into the Earth as plates of crust move. Finally, it is liberated by volcanoes as carbon dioxide gas, to be recycled again.

But even if there was once life on Mars, there was no subduction to recycle carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, said Raymond Siever of Harvard University. Eventually its water dried up and it became a cold, lifeless planet.

In contrast, it has been suggested that the absence of life on Venus to use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis resulted in a huge carbon dioxide buildup. This then made the planet so hot that its crust could never become cool enough to subduct--leaving no way to ever get rid of carbon dioxide and sealing the planet’s fate.

- Some scientists suspect that, whenever the oxygen concentration in our atmosphere becomes too high, there are more naturally occurring forest fires. This would result in higher phosphorus runoff to the oceans, where marine plants use that nutrient less efficiently. Thus, plants would be putting less oxygen into the atmosphere, according to Lee R. Kump of Pennsylvania State University.

Such mechanisms are far from being proven, however, and the many variables in living systems will make that difficult to do. However, the conference provided a necessary forum for thinking in such terms, Margulis said.

“That in itself is a remarkable innovation,” she said, “because what they’re doing is considering the effect of the biota out loud, in ways that were much harder to do previously.”

For his part, after spending 16 years promoting the Gaia concept, Lovelock said he is satisfied that it does not need him anymore to be kept alive. He plans to get out of the Gaia field at the end of this year.

“As soon as there’s a literature on a subject, then it’s time to leave it,” Lovelock said. “It gets to the dotting of i’s and the crossing of t’s. There’s nothing more tedious than having to read all the past papers and worrying about whether you’re going to offend somebody.”