Archive for September, 2012

Undercoat

Friday, September 28th, 2012

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  That the native inhabitants of the Americas had a different way of relating to the landscape is without much question. Their sacred sites and temples were placed in special geographic places.

  But what led to such a view? Could it be because that within their culture, they value fitting in with nature, not trying to change it? Seeing yourself as part of something is, to be sure, not the same as seeing yourself as separate from something.

  What we are all part of is a vast web of life that covers our planet. So far, based on the current state of scientific knowledge, it is that web which makes Earth distinct and unlike any other place we know of in the Universe.

  That “coating” of life includes plants, of course, and animals, fungi, and microbes of many kinds. Life lives in the air, in the water, and on the land. And, now it turns out, inside the planet, too. It thrives even in the rocks.

  In last month’s GeoStory™ (“Top Coat” — also in gemland.net), I talked about life on the surface of rocks. However, that layer pales in comparison with what is underneath.

  Geologists and other scientists are beginning to realize that in what we once thought was barren, lifeless stone, is, in many cases, teeming with microorganisms. Some of those microscopic life-forms are strange indeed, and can feed from the rocks, without needing air or light.

  Sedimentary rocks (which are deposited by water or wind) usually have small pore spaces within. These pores can and many times do, contain water, oil, or gases. It is from this porosity that we pump groundwater, petroleum, or natural gas.

  Other kinds of rocks, by nature of the way they formed, have no pores per se. But they frequently contain fractures of all sizes, and water or hydrocarbons can occupy those cracks, too. Living things – microbes – can occupy them all.

  Various experiments over the past few decades have shown that certain bacteria can flourish in such environments. No sunshine. No fresh air. Sometimes stiflingly hot temperatures. Yet, there they grow and multiply. The only thing that seems to be required in all cases for life to exist is the presence of water. We have lots of that, and we know now that our neighbor planet Mars probably does (or at least once did), too.

  No wonder that space scientists look with intense interest upon such organisms. If they can exist in the rocks here, then maybe they can exist in the rocks of Mars, or other worlds, too. And for earth scientists, such “deep life”, is leading to a new level of understanding of how the world works.

  Based on data derived from deep-drilling projects, the late, brilliant, and controversial Cornell University astronomer Thomas Gold did some calculating. His reasonable estimates indicate that the top five kilometers (about three miles) of the Earth’s crust could contain as much as 200 trillion metric tons of live bacteria. This would be like covering the entire planet with a layer of bacterial organisms one and a half meters (approximately five feet) deep!

  This is more than a hundred times as much living mass (called biomass) as all of the other life-forms (including us) of the world put together! If aliens from another world were studying our planet, they would easily conclude that the rocks are the most alive part of it.

  There are, of course, visible remnants of past subsurface life: coal beds, fossils, tar sands and other petroleum formations. There are metallic mineral deposits which seem to have been “helped along” in their genesis by organic life.

  Professor Gold has even suggested that diamonds come from deep-seated organic materials, and we know today that diamonds must form in an environment at least 75 miles down. If hydrocarbon compounds can exist that far below us, and the rocks are alive, so to speak, then the Earth we all know and love is a very unusual place.

  Perhaps, though I can’t prove it, life gravitates towards other life, and I don’t mean just to eat it, either. Maybe it’s a stretch, but think about it the next time you pull into an almost-empty parking lot, and you park right next to another person’s lonely vehicle.

  The Indians (and to be fair, many other ancient cultures) may have subliminally recognized the existence of places where life was, in effect, somehow concentrated nearby, though not apparent on the surface. Some of those places became special to them.

  Ponder that the next time you are out in the great outdoors somewhere, and “feel alive”. Look around and see what makes that so, and then look down, too.

  It may all be underneath you.