Will we show up in the geologic record in millions of years? The Anthropocene suggests the answer is yes: collective human impact on the environment will leave a definitive mark in future bedrock. We’re a geologic force that influences every natural cycle.
We’re not just impacting rocks and animals, though. Humans rely on the earth as much as we influence it, making for an interdependent relationship. Environmental degradation, then, affects people as much as ecosystems. That places an important stewardship on our shoulders, and the scientific work of BYU professors is helping us find our way forward.
Research helps us understand the measurable effects of human impact. Scientific study then leads us to solutions. Each research project is a crucial piece of the puzzle, but it’s when they’re adjoined that the bigger picture comes to light.
Climate: Plants and Permafrost
Climate describes weather patterns over the long term, so climate is generally stable. Changes in the atmosphere, however, change climate.
Burning fossil fuels releases ancient carbon into the atmosphere, unnaturally thickening a blanket-like layer of greenhouse gases. “Within the scientific community, we’re not arguing over whether climate change is real,” says Dr. Sam St. Clair (PWS). The question is what its local impacts will be. Climate is a complex system, so while global patterns are clear, regional effects vary.
One might think that tropical plants would be unaffected by heat. However, their physiology is adapted to a consistent climate, not thermal extremes, so higher temperatures actually have a disproportionately negative impact on tropical plants. Dr. Richard Gill (BIO) summarizes the paradox: “The tropics, by their sheer stability in terms of historical climate, [are] more vulnerable.”
Gill’s research shows that more carbon dioxide isn’t always helpful for plant growth. While plants initially grow better, subsequent chemical changes eventually backfire; more carbon in dead plant matter slows decomposition, trapping nitrogen such that living plants can’t absorb it. Less nitrogen means less plant growth, so the positive effect of carbon dioxide is temporary.
Far from the tropics, the earth’s largest stock of dead plant matter is in permafrost. The cold prevents microorganisms from decomposing plant matter, which collects over time. After thousands of years, the frozen soil preserves a huge stock of plant matter.
Permafrost underlies a quarter of the earth’s land and contains 1,500 to 1,800 gigatons of carbon: that’s three or four times more carbon than there is in all living things and about twice what’s in the atmosphere. Warmed by climate change, thawing permafrost releases carbon and risks kickstarting a feedback loop of warming and thawing.
With temperatures rising two to six times faster in arctic ecosystems than the rest of the globe, researching permafrost sensitivity is imperative. “We need to know where the limit is,” says Dr. Ben Abbott (PWS), “so we can stay as far away from it as we can.” If we curb human emissions, most permafrost scientists believe that we may still be able to keep about 80% of permafrost carbon in the ground.
Habitat: Aspen & Cheatgrass
“Because everything we have depends on ecosystem function,” says St. Clair, “what we’re doing on the planet . . . comes back and impacts us.” Two examples of vegetation in the western United States demonstrate this principle.
Warming temperatures in Utah are impacting aspen growth. Drought impairs the plants that big animals prefer to eat, so aspen saplings are unusually grazed during dry summers. With more summer droughts predicted, aspen populations face increasing challenges.
Aspen trees matter because they foster life. Aspen forests preserve 20–25% more water than conifer forests. Additionally, aspen facilitates the establishment of other tree species. “Just listen—and you can hear the biodiversity . . . that is created by aspen [forests],” says St. Clair. The thriving diversity of aspen forests benefits both hunters, who want large game, and ranchers, whose livestock enjoy prime forage.
Other trees have less desirable effects. Fire suppression has promoted pinyon and juniper trees at the cost of smaller sagebrush. The larger vegetation fuels larger fires. The simultaneous spread of invasive cheatgrass, which dries up in summer, makes for frequent fires: these grasslands burn every three to five years instead of every twenty to one hundred years.
Since 2005, Dr. Bruce Roundy (PWS) has helped monitor the effectiveness of fire-reducing treatments. Mechanically shredding (definition on page 6) encroaching trees is particularly effective because it reduces fuel for fires, returns nutrients to the soil faster, and preserves soil moisture. In their place, native perennial grasses and shrubs flourish naturally or are seeded to prevent cheatgrass. Especially on a local level, these treatments can seem destructive and expensive, but they productively reduce fires and improve wildlife habitat.
Pollution: Marshes & Lichens
We receive myriad benefits from the natural world that silently provide the quality of life that we enjoy. Clean air, pure water, and fertile soil benefit us invisibly—until they’re contaminated.
Take the everglades for an example. This marshy ecosystem once covered a third of Florida, naturally purifying ocean-bound water. Starting in the 1940s, people drained the marshes for farmland and housing by funneling water more directly to the ocean. Without the marshy filtering system, excess nutrients—especially nitrogen from fertilizers—cause huge blooms of toxic algae. The resulting dead zones threaten the ecosystem, local economy, and human health.
Beachside signs warn you to call the health department if you so much as touch the water. “Nobody started out by saying, ‘Let’s destroy this place that we love to live in,’” Dr. Blaine Griffen (BIO) laments. “They said, ‘You know, I bet that’s good farmland. . . and we just need to change it a little bit.’” Changing ecosystems is inherently risky. While ecosystems are often resilient, removing or damaging pieces increases the risk of collapse.
Lichens are like mini-ecosystems. Dr. Steve Leavitt (BIO), who studies them, describes them as “funky little things . . . comprised of all kinds of little organisms coming together to create something that would otherwise never exist.” This makes lichens fragile: if one key player is damaged, the whole system falls apart. That sensitivity makes lichens a reliable measure of ecosystem health.
Additionally, because lichens accumulate nutrients by deposition and don’t shed anything, they accumulate local pollutants. Grind up lichen and you can find concentrations of titanium or lead from human pollution.
“The story,” says Leavitt, “ is in the long-term evaluation.” For three decades, the Lichen Air Quality Biomonitoring Program of the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum has been gathering data-based stories. The program assesses the ecological health of public lands (like wilderness areas and national parks) by evaluating lichen diversity and pollutant levels in sensitive lichen.
One success story is an old copper smelter superfund site near Anaconda, Montana. After thirty years of consistent progress, the most recent samples show dramatically improved air quality, increased lichen diversity, and lower pollutant levels. And if it’s healthy for lichens, it’s healthy for us too.
Dependents: Medicine & Livelihood
Before a successful cancer treatment drug was derived from Pacific yew trees, people carelessly logged the trees and left them to rot. Now, the survival of cancer patients can depend on this once undervalued tree species. Such stories remind us that because we don’t know everything, we can’t say that something is worthless.
We all depend on the natural world, but some feel it immediately. Indigenous groups who live off the land are directly affected by ecosystem health. Gill’s newest research is about how villagers in Saipipi, Samoa, are being affected by—and responding to—climate change. “We often think that climate change is something that will happen, that we should be anticipating it,” says Gill, “and we often fail to acknowledge that we’re already in the middle of it.”
Ocean acidification inhibits coral growth, making it unusually vulnerable to stresses. Two consecutive years of coral bleaching events have substantially affected Saipipi. “[There were] huge areas of bleached and crumbling coral . . . where it’s just like chalk,” Gill recalls. “Probably 50% of the reef had been bleached.”
Fish need coral for food and habitat, and villagers rely on fish for over half their dietary protein. Recognizing the impact on their food source, villagers created marine protection areas to reduce the pressure on the reefs.
“[Saipipi is] culturally very resilient, but environmentally, very vulnerable,” says Gill, who hopes his project will lead to adaptive solutions that incorporate both indigenous and scientific knowledge. “Collaboration will allow us to better understand . . . the pathway forward.”
Purpose: Stewardship & Choices
In Doctrine & Covenants 59:18–20, the Lord says that the earth is for “the benefit and the use of man” but also charges that we use it “with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.” The Creation, then, is a gift from God over which we have been given stewardship.
“I take it seriously that we’re stewards of this planet,” says Griffen. “We need to take care of it.” Our capability to affect the earth’s systems brings an equal responsibility to look after it. Scientific research provides reliable knowledge about what choices and actions make us good stewards.
While global changes may feel beyond our influence, they are nonetheless experienced on a local scale—and we can respond in kind. “Individually, I think what we need to do is add this to the list of things that informs why we make choices,” explains Gill. Just like we’re motivated by family or health, we can prioritize what’s right for the earth’s sustainability. St. Clair is motivated by looking forward. “I have kids, and I’m going to have grandkids,” he says. “What is the future going to look like for my daughter, Grace, or [for] Eli or Daniel? What’s it going to look like for their kids? What legacy have I left by the decisions I made . . . on this earth?”
If recovering lichen communities, successful land management, and collaboration for solutions in Samoa prove anything, it’s that we can choose to do good in the Anthropocene. Our intertwined relationship with the natural world isn’t a downward spiral; rather, it’s a developing interdependence. To grow in righteous stewardship, we must continually face the existing problems and respond by making responsible choices.
A potential geologic epoch wherein human activity has been the dominant influence on climate, natural systems, and the environment.
A gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect that warms the globe.
A global or regional change in climate patterns that’s suddenly arisen during the 20th century, largely attributed to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil.
Ground that stays frozen year-round, usually below the earth’s surface. It occurs widely in the Arctic, sub-Arctic, and Antarctic but is also found in alpine highlands.
Historical policies of putting out naturally occurring fires. Originally thought to be a good practice, this was done in ignorance of fire’s role in a forest’s natural life cycle.
Also called mastication, a treatment that uses machines to chop and shred trees down to their roots.
An area of the ocean with depleted oxygen. After algae blooms in an explosion of growth, their decomposition uses up the oxygen in the water. Without oxygen, other organisms die off on a large scale.
A composite organism of algae living among multiple fungi in a symbiotic relationship. They typically form a crust-like or leaf-like growth on rocks and trees.
The process of accumulating particles which come down from the atmosphere and deposit on the surface of the lichen.
Areas so heavily polluted with hazardous contaminants that they require long-term cleanup and federal funding to restore.
A detrimental process that is making the ocean more acidic. As the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide, subsequent chemical changes decrease the pH of seawater.
A person who takes care of the affairs or property of another. What a steward cares for is called a stewardship. All things on earth belong to the Lord, so we are His stewards.