New goals for fundamental science

Makarieva A.M., Gorshkov V.G., Startsev A.A. On the occasion of the Year of Ecology 2017 in Russia.

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Since its origins science has been on the forefront of man's struggle against a hostile environment. In the long run, with the discovery of electricity, internal combustion engine and inorganic fertilizers our living standards have drastically improved. Today the majority of people in the developed countries have never starved or worked to physiological exhaustion. In this aspect modern people have for the first time in the history of modern civilization caught up with the aboriginal inhabitants of the natural environment where our species originated. Indeed, humans residing at an ecologically sustainable density in a highly productive tropical ecosystem with an optimal climate did not overwork to gain food; in consequence, they had never had a stimulus to develop science and technology.

Thus, science and technology have ultimately solved this monumental task - to provide human beings, forced to live outside their native environment, with food, clothes and shelter without overworking. Where this task has been solved, the scientific and technological progress expectedly ceased to further improve human conditions. (The very idea of "improving living standards" implies their suboptimal status.) As for the fundamental science, it moved on beyond the scales of time, space and energy that are pertinent to human existence. Intense studies in the field of high energy physics relate to energy scales far exceeding those of nuclear physics, while astrophysics is penetrating the Universe's depths from which we are separated by millions of light-years. As time goes, people are beginning to perceive the rapidly diminishing returns of the investments in science and technology [1]. The authority of science in general and scientists in particular declines.
[1] Mokyr J. (2013) Is technological progress a thing of the past? VOX (CEPR's policy portal).

This situation is dangerous, since never before in its history has the humanity been dependent on science more than it is now. Our exponentially growing civilization is unstable. The apparent security of the modern life styles is ephemeral. Human population has grown up to near ten billion - this number is several orders of magnitude higher than the ecologically sustainable population numbers of other animals of comparable size. Moreover, modern humans consume per capita about fifty times more energy per unit time than they would in their natural ecosystem. Anthropogenic impact went beyond the biosphere's sustainability threshold: soils, water and temperature regimes are rapidly degrading world over.

A new challenge for science has emerged. How to preserve the achieved level of progress? How to avoid an ecological collapse and the associated global social chaos and a worldwide decline of living standards?

To solve that task novel approaches seem necessary that would replace the historical confrontation between science and biosphere. Such approaches are apparently taking their time to show up. In the meantime environmental problems continue to be addressed along the conventional scheme - struggle with industrial pollution. "Struggle with pollution" capitalizes all the conceptual depth of human interactions with the global environment.

A major white spot in modern science relates to the question of how nature works when undisturbed by humans: how natural ecosystems - forests, bogs, oceans - sustain themselves. How did it so happen that life in these ecosystems never discontinued and their environment remained suitable for life for hundred millions of years? It is namely this stability and persistence that make natural ecosystems distinct from all, without exception, anthropogenic biosystems including our global civilization.

Historically, in those countries who championed the scientific and technological progress - and who nowadays continue to determine the global scientific agenda - the imperative of an anthropogenic transformation of nature has been most influential. In consequence, wild nature in these countries had been transformed into non-existence. In some poorer countries, on the other hand, where natural forests still exist, there is neither a solid scientific base nor a strong stimulus to study natural ecosystems. Here high population numbers and the associated low living standards dictate a rapid process of selling out the remaining natural resources; natural forests are being exterminated. The situation in Russia and Brazil is, in some aspects, more favorable: besides an independent scientific base these countries still preserve ecosystems with only minor degree of disturbance over much of their territory [2].
[2] Kobyakov, K.N., Shmatkov, N.M., Shvarts, E.A., Karpachevsky, M.L. (2015) Loss of Intact Forest Landscapes in Russia and Effective Forest Management in Secondary Forests as Its Alternative for Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Rural Development. XIV World Forestry Congress, Durban, South Africa, 7-11 September 2015.

The interdisciplinary concept of biotic regulation was formulated in Russia; some of its aspects are currently developed by an international team of scientists. It offers a quantitative proof for the statement that the environment remains suitable for life owing to the impact of life itself. The stabilizing environmental impact of natural ecosystems is proportional to the area they occupy. It follows that natural ecosystems protected from human exploitation should be allowed to operate on sufficiently large global areas - such that their cumulative impact is sufficient to keep the global environment and climate in a stable state. When the stability threshold of natural ecosystems is overcome by human interference, the environment will degrade to an unsuitable for life state irrespective of whether we humans continue to directly pollute it (e.g. by emitting carbon) or not.

Modern humanity owes to science not only all of its achievements; science is equally responsible for the ever growing fragility of our world. Our civilization will stand a chance of escaping the approaching ecological collapse if and only if the fundamental science does allocate some of its huge internal resources to focus on the problems of stability (not growth!) - of the biosphere, human society and global environment. One specific task in this endeavor would be to study the ecological peculiarities of Homo sapiens as a big animal species, one of the many in the biosphere. In this article we will briefly discuss two from the longer list of the most important stability problems: the water cycle and human mental health in an overpopulated world. In the concluding section we consider the fundamental ecological problem of big animals as destabilizers of terrestrial ecosystems.

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Where does water come from?

In 2015 the authorities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declared that the next year would become the year of the last wheat yield [3]. This statement was conditioned by the depletion of the underground water reserves in this desert country where the population numbers have tripled over the last forty years. A recent grain exporter, the country all of a sudden found itself without water. The available estimates [4] indicate that a similar catastrophe threatens many key agricultural regions of the world, including California, India and China.
[3] Halverson N. (2015) What California can learn from Saudi Arabia's water mystery.
[4] Famiglietti, J.S. (2014) The global groundwater crisis. Nature Climate Change 4: 945-948.

While population numbers in those regions where science was developing remained low, there was enough water. Thus, no incentives existed to study where this water comes from. In consequence, modern science cannot boast significant advances in understanding how the water cycle works, let alone how it can be stabilized. The problem is as follows.

Stationary water cycle on land
Fig. 1. Stationary water cycle on land.

As the continents are elevated over the ocean, liquid water on land does not stay: under gravity, it runs off to the ocean (Fig. 1). There is very little fresh water on land: if its store is not continually replenished, rivers would run dry in just a few years. The compensatory flow of water from ocean to land occurs via the atmosphere. Water evaporates from the ocean; then winds bring it to land in the form of water vapor. Here moist air must rise to produce rain. It is when the air rises that it cools, the water vapor condenses and precipitates feeding rivers and watering life on land. Thus, whether land gets its water is contingent on two processes: whether winds blow inland from the ocean bringing in water vapor and, second, whether moist air ascends over land.

It so happens that namely these two questions in modern meteorology are rendered with least certainty. Modern models of wind circulation are built by fitting key parameters (most importantly, parameters of turbulence) to observations [5,6]. These models do not have predictive skills beyond a few days -- which is, by the way, the time scale of water vapor turnover in the atmosphere.
[5] Voudouri A. et al. (2017) Objective calibration of numerical weather prediction models. Atmospheric Research 190, 128-140.
[6] Makarieva A.M. et al. (2017) Kinetic energy generation in heat engines and heat pumps: the relationship between surface pressure, temperature and circulation cell size. Tellus A, 69, 1272752, doi: 10.1080/16000870.2016.1272752.

Independent measurements of river runoff offer an opportunity of checking whether the atmospheric models correctly capture the inland moisture transport. Indeed, according to mass conservation, the amount of water vapor brought to land by winds must be equal to the reverse flow of water via runoff to the ocean. Atmospheric models do not pass this test. For example, for the Amazon river basin the modelled import of moisture turns out to be twice less than the observed runoff. Discrepancies of similar magnitude pertain to all regions of the world and cannot be fixed even by fitting [7].
[7] Hagemann S. et al. (2011) Impact of a statistical bias correction on the projected hydrological changes obtained from three GCMs and two hydrology models. J. Hydrometeor. 12, 556-578.

Not only the terrestrial water cycle but all atmospheric phenomena involving phase transitions of water present similar problems: monsoons, tropical cyclones, the global atmospheric circulation. Meteorological science recognizes the water challenge. However, the methods proposed to address this challenge tend to adhere to the "more of the same" principle. More computer power and more observations, including satellites, are expected to significantly improve the models' predictive skills. But despite the ever growing computer power and observation networks no breakthroughs have happened.

Take hurricanes, for example. Modern hurricane models are based on the premise that hurricanes extract heat from the ocean. By this logic, the warmer the ocean, the more hurricanes. In 2013 based on the observations of an anomalously high surface temperature of the Atlantic ocean all world's leading weather centers forecasted an (hyper)active hurrican season. In reality, in 2013 hurricanes practically did not happen. This "bust" received considerable coverage in American media which unlike their Russian counterparts should generally be credited for ther interest in environmental science.

Global atmospheric circulation presents another example of a mismatch between the long-term weakening predicted by models and the observed wind strengthening in major circulation cells [e.g., 8]. About the difficulties in predicting monsoons see, e.g., [8a].
[8] Kociuba G., Power S. B. (2015) Inability of CMIP5 models to simulate recent strengthening of the Walker circulation: implications for projections, J. Climate 28, 20-35.
[8a] Acharya N., Kar S.C., Mohanty U., Kulkarni M.A., Dash S (2011) Performance of GCMs for seasonal prediction over Indiaa case study for 2009 monsoon. Theoretical and Applied Climatology 105, 505-520.

Recently a proposition was put forward that to solve the water challenge the number of atmospheric researchers should grow as well. A mainstream journal Nature Geoscience appealed to young mathematicians and physicists urging them to choose a career in atmospheric sciences instead of astronomy or cosmology. Young researchers were invited, for the planet's sake, to build yet more complex and detailed climate models.

While such an appeal could possibly boost the currently insufficient interest of young scientists in meteorology, comparison to physics suggests that the problem here could be deeper. The astonishing progress physics made in the last two centuries reflects a unique collaboration between experimentalists and theorists, the latter's role being to think experiments over. Theorists must synthesize all the available experimental data into a comprehensive and self-consistent quantitative description of the studied phenomenon. This should be done in such a manner that the emerging new knowledge be consistent with the fundamental laws of nature and with all the available observations including those from other fields of science. This type of mental activity -- drawing a coherent picture of the world -- requires special skills and special criteria of success. The culture of theoretical research reached its peak in modern theoretical physics, especially high energy physics and astrophysics. Spreading this culture across other fields of science is necessary if the interdisciplinary problem of preserving our civilization is to be solved.

In modern atmospheric science theorists as an organized community do not exist: the division of labor is largely between people doing observations and modellers. In the absence of a vibrant community of theorists the physical ideas about atmospheric circulation laid out as early as when physics as a science was an indivisible whole, are rarely scrutinized in the light of new data; they may ultimately become a dogma. In the modern paradigm the single physical idea underlying descriptions of atmospheric circulation is, as proposed by Halley a few centuries ago, the Archimedes buoyancy. The warm air rises, the cold air descends. In essence, all existing models exploit this idea. In every atmospheric problem a temperature gradient is found, then all the necessary parameters are tuned such that the temperature-associated pressure gradients generate the observed winds.

Meanwhile, besides differential heating, there is a distinct physical process generating atmospheric pressure gradients. There is also a distinct theoretical approach quantifying the significance of this process for atmospheric circulation. The process is condensation of water vapor in the rising air [10]. Water vapor presence in the atmosphere induces the ascending air motion. Water vapor removal from the gas phase creates a local pressure shortage and generates pressure gradients making winds blow towards the condensation area. Hurricanes and tornadoes intensify not by extracting heat from the ocean but via condensation of water vapor previously accumulated in the atmosphere through which they must move to gather their fuel [11,12].
[10] Makarieva, A. M., Gorshkov, V. G., Sheil, D., Nobre, A. D., and Li, B.-L. (2013) Where do winds come from? A new theory on how water vapor condensation influences atmospheric pressure and dynamics. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 13, 1039-1056.
[11] Makarieva A.M., Gorshkov V.G., Nefiodov A.V. (2011) Condensational theory of stationary tornadoes. Physics Letters A 375, 2259-2261.
[12] Makarieva A.M., Gorshkov V.G., Nefiodov A.V., Chikunov A.V., Sheil D., Nobre A.D., Li B.-L. (2017) Fuel for cyclones: How the water vapor budget of a hurricane depends on its movement. Atmospheric Research 122, 7300-7307.

Plants, especially trees in natural forests, are the main source of water vapor on land [13]. Trees accumulate and store moisture in soil and then emit water vapor into the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis. Thus, by regulating the atmospheric vapor, natural forests control the inland moisture transport on a continental scale. Forests act as a biotic pump of atmospheric moisture [13].
[13] Makarieva A.M., Gorshkov V.G., Li B.-L. (2013) Revisiting forest impact on atmospheric water vapor transport and precipitation. Theoretical and Applied Climatology 111, 79-96.

Thousands of years ago modern deserts, including the Arabian desert, used to be covered by lush vegetation. It was during these periods of biotic pump functioning that the vast underground reservoirs had been slowly filled with water. Then the vegetation cover degraded for some reason, possibly under the impact of humans or some other big herbivores. The biotic pump of atmospheric moisture stalled [14,14a].
[14] Gorshkov V.G., Makarieva A.M. (2007) Biotic pump of atmospheric moisture as driver of the hydrological cycle on land. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 11, 1013-1033.
[14a] Wright D.K. (2017) Humans as Agents in the Termination of the African Humid Period. Frontiers in Earth Science doi: 10.3389/feart.2017.00004, see also Did humans create the Sahara desert?

In recent decades, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia attempted to secure food independence, those ancient groundwater stores have been used up for irrigation. To restore the water cycle in the KSA requires relaunching the biotic via recovery of natural vegetation.

In Russia, too, the abundance of fresh water is not guaranteed by the geographic position of our country. The great Russian rivers exist as long as the great Russian forests remain viable and self-sustainable. Their viability (and, hence, the Russian biotic pump) are under threat: forests in Russia are burnt and over exploited. To restore and sustain the regulatory climatic functions of natural forests is a most urgent and important task [15], an intellectual challenge incomparable in scale with the fashionable "title" projects of modern science like colonization of Mars.
[15] .. (2017) Basic concepts and methods of restoration of natural forests in Eastern Europe. Russian Journal of Ecosystem Ecology, 2, doi:10.21685/2500-0578-2017-1-1.

The atmospheric science, let alone the science of ecosystems, has been long considered as being of secondary importance compared to those fields of science that historically attracted most of the humanity's brilliant minds, the outcome being the enormous scientific and technological progress of the last century and a half. However, at present when the stability of the water cycle and climate in general has been undermined, the humanity has become critically dependent on the quality of climate and ecosystem sciences and on the efficiency of their interaction.

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Psychological health and overcrowding

Ecological rights that have been lost

Technological progress spared humans from rapid physiological ageing and sufferings associated with hard physical labor. This achievement came at a cost though -- some essential ecological rights humans enjoyed in their natural environment have been lost in the civilized world. One of them is personal freedom. In the natural environment every adult individual was able to provide food for himself/herself. Thus, every adult human being depended only on himself and on his close social group where all members were well acquainted with each other. In the modern world most people depend on each other in a complex manner. No individual, no matter how strong, clever and capable he or she is, would be able to sustain his or her living standards if the other members of our multibillion civilization ceased to work.

At the same time the natural fertile environment has been almost ubiquitously destroyed: fish and game stocks have been globally depleted, soils degraded, fresh water flows overused or poisoned. To make for one's living in the "natural" manner -- i.e., independent of millions of strangers -- has become impossible. What is even more important, human population numbers have grown so high that any large-scale transition to more "natural" ways of getting food, e.g. by abandoning chemical fertilizers, would only facilitate degradation of the remaining natural ecosystems. (Because a larger per capita area will be required.) Such a transition will make global ecological collapse closer. Thus at current population numbers there is no way back to personal freedom. If the population numbers are reduced, there is possibly a way forward [16].
[16] Makarieva A., Gorshkov V., Wilderer P.A. (2016) What Can We Learn from Natural Ecosystems to Avoid a Civilization Breakdown? Section 3.3 in Wilderer P.A., Grambow M. (eds.) Global Stability through Decentralization? In Search for the Right Balance between Central and Decentral Solutions. Series Strategies for Sustainability, Springer International Publishing Switzerland, doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-24358-0_3

As industrial processes sustaining human life became increasingly specialized, urbanization followed -- a life style whereby many people of different professions live on the same relatively small territory without knowing each other. Population densities spiked while per capita living area declined by several orders of magnitude compared to the natural environment. Numerous studies demonstrated that overcrowding and overpopulation results in diverse behavioral aberrations in different species of mammals, including aggression and lack of parental care [17] and in all species produces stress and anxiety. To minimize the negative effects of this permanent stress the urbanized societies had to elaborate special ethical rules that would at least partially protect psychological health of people subjected to overcrowding.
[17] Calhoun J.B. (1962) Population density and social pathology. Scientific American 206, 139-148.

Behavioral norms under overpopulation

The individual territory of humans has shrunk from several square kilometers in nature to a hundred square meters in modern civilization. Rudiments of the ecological human right to individual territory have been codified in the notion of the inviolability of the home. Such a law is present in one form or another in the juridical norms of all countries. It means that no intrusion of strangers into the closed private space of an individual is to be tolerated. Here "intrusion" implies the stranger abusing visual and/ or tactile sensations of the home owner. Possible abuse of the other three out of the man's five sense organs -- hearing, smell, taste -- does not normally fall under this law. However, a satisfactory law system guaranteeing psychological stability of an urbanized society cannot be formulated without a detailed investigation of the ecological peculiarities of the Homo sapiens species.

In January 2016 in Moscow, Russia a tragic accident occurred. After repeated calls to the police to take measures against the noise, a man could not sleep and shot a young woman who was using a megaphone to advertise something outdoors.

(To be continued. Stay tuned by subscribing to our news and/or telegram channel @bioticregulation.)