Big day for International Year

Crunch meeting at UNESCO gives fair wind to the International Year of Planet Earth

A successful meeting has given a fair wind to the proposed International Year of Planet Earth. Key countries including China (leading), Russia, Brazil, and Argentina have already pledged their full support for the initiative. With another four nations poised to make full political commitment and scientific backing from a further 12, efforts at IUGS and UNESCO will now be redoubled to bring the International Year of Planet Earth forward for adoption at the United Nations General Assembly this autumn. The initiative now also has the formal backing of a wide range of scientific associations and institutes, including the IPA, IAGOG, SEG, SGA, IHA, the IGCP Scientific Board, the Geological Society of London and UNESCO.

This meeting, which took place at UNESCO's Paris headquarters on February 11, was rounded off with a rousing address from Prof. Aubrey Manning (Edinburgh University) who has enthusiastically agreed to be the project's media champion. Prof. Manning, presenter of the BBC’s acclaimed series Earth Story, said:

“The draft proclamation for the International Year cites 2006 as the 95th anniversary of the formulation of the fundamental concept of continental drift by Alfred Wegener, which revolutionised our understanding of how the Earth works. However, March 2004 marks just 40 years after the great Alaska Earthquake, which placed a great keystone in the structure of our modern concept of plate tectonics – namely the importance of subduction.”

“As a biologist I have been made increasingly aware of the interdependence of Earth and life. Water has existed at surface of the Earth for most of its history. Life first 'took a hand' in the evolution of the planet with the emergence of the cyanobacteria. In stromatolites, the formations in which we first recognised them as fossils, they survive today on the west coast of Australia. Other forms are still widespread and it was these organisms that first began to use light energy from the sun to make complex molecules and generate that (once) toxic element, oxygen. This in turn gave rise to the banded iron formations of the Proterozoic – perhaps the first bit of the planet's structure that owed its existence to the presence of life on Earth. There are now plenty more – soils, reefs, coals and lignites, oil and gas, chalk - all forming part of the planet we share.”

“Life began really very early in the history of the planet - possibly as much as 4Ga ago - even when Earth was still under heavy bombardment. Some of the most recently discovered forms of life - the thermophilic bacteria - show that life can indeed exist in seas heated to boiling by impacts and internal heat. They remind us that the evolution of life is not a replacement phenomenon. Our vertebrate ancestors crawled out onto the land – but fish continue to inhabit the oceans; just as these ‘primitive’ bacteria – ‘primitive’ in the sense of ‘first on the scene’ – still inhabit the pore spaces of rocks deep in the crust under the oceans, at hydrothermal vents, and in oil deposits.”

“But life as we generally understand it – multicellular life – really got going perhaps about 700 to 800Ma ago. We first see it in what has become known – slightly misleadingly – as the ‘Cambrian explosion’. Since then, global tectonics have had a major effect on its development. Mammalian evolution was profoundly influenced by the break-up of Pangea, which separated off South America and Australia and allowed the marsupial mammals to develop in isolation from the placentals. Subsequently, the Isthmus of Panama introduced eutherian mammals to South America - and a few marsupials to the North.”

“Shallows seas, so important to early life, have varied in size and extend through the aeons. Ice ages have punctuated the history of the planet – and may even have been instrumental in setting off the Cambrian explosion if the Snowball Earth theory is to be believed. Mass volcanism and extraterrestrial impacts – the latter a factor of our planet’s cosmic environment – have also punctuated the history of life with mass extinction events. The rise of the Tibetan Plateau, raised as India crashed into the underbelly of Asia and threw up the Himalayas, may have altered global climate in ways that caused the African forests to turn to savannah, in turn encouraging the eventual rise of our own species.”

“With his concept of Gaia, James Lovelock recognises that, interacting with life, many planetary processes are homeostatic in their outcome. Unlike some of his more mystical disciples, he knows the Earth is not ‘alive’, but such processes are like those of a living organism. Hence the planet is certainly resilient, and as Lovelock points out, nothing humans can do will affect Gaia’s ultimate fate. What we can influence is the more pressing question (for us) of whether the human race can continue to inhabit Earth in a happy and constructive way.”

“Here surely is a unifying cause that can help us to lift our eyes from the pressing demands of the everyday. They must receive our attention but not, surely, our whole attention. We must, as a species, address broader horizons. The International Year of Planet Earth is of fundamental importance because it will appeal to everyone's enlightened self-interest.”

“For those who would argue that everything has a price – then the economic value of the services provided by our planet – clean water, clean air, fertile soils and so forth – have a clear and quantifiable monetary value. A recent study has calculated that that value is three times the total gross national products of all the nations of the Earth. Our planet will continue to provide this bounty, free, forever – so long as we take care of it.”

“For me, it is, to me, a wonderful thought that so many countries can come together under the umbrella of the United Nations and become involved in this process of encouraging the responsible stewardship of our planet. There are huge educational opportunities here. The work of geoscientists has revealed how our planet ‘works’, and there is much wonderful science to be conveyed here in an approachable way. The general principles are certainly not difficult to understand. It will not be easy to bring home to everyone the importance of our responsibility for our planet.”

“The human race’s ingenuity and intelligence effectively put us in charge. As the International Year’s prospectus ‘The Earth in our hands’ says in its very title. We must recognise this, and restrain our future exploitation of this heritage. But it is quite counterproductive to overemphasize problems. There is so much that is positive to communicate. Good science is both fascinating and effective. It can reduce hazards and suggest solutions. But beyond the science, education about the Earth must help in the appreciation of how beautiful our planet is.”

“All of us will know parts of our planet that we find just breathtaking. One for me is the Dorset Coast around Durdle Door. When you close your eyes, you may see Kilimanjaro rising above the African plains; or the Grand Canyon. But wherever your favourite example lies, all of us can see how beautiful the world is – and that is the way to involve the public. We must feel for our planet; appreciate its beauty, and feel a personal sense of hurt if it is damaged, or treated unsustainably. Outreach must be a process of engendering love – a love of our common home. Notwithstanding plate tectonics and Gaia, there can surely be no more grand or unifying theory, than that which says we all share a common home.”

“Of course, from time to time, the Earth will continue to deal us some pretty tough cards. There will be other earthquakes and floods and huge eruptions – and we can mitigate the effects of those through better understanding how our planet works. But whatever future trials lie in store, the Earth is our only home and deserves our love.”

“I warmly commend this initiative to you, congratulate the IUGS and UNESCO for putting it forward, and the People's Republic of China for agreeing to lead it. I urge you to do all you can to support it.”

Across a crowded room: over 150 delegates attended the International Year meeting.

Koichiro Matsura
(Director General, UNESCO):
“Wish you well in your deliberations”

Charles Groat
“Focus our energies on what decision makers feel is important”

Li Zhijian
“International cooperation in geoscience has become indispensable”

Fred Wellmer
“Human creativity the only unlimited resource”

Hormoz Modaressi
“Bam – we should have known”

Aubrey Manning
“We are one world - this proposal has immense importance for the survival of our species”

Ed de Mulder
“Earth science knowledge is under-used”