, Volume 58, Issue 1-2, pp 21-45

The Gaia Hypothesis: Conjectures and Refutations

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Abstract

The uncertainties surrounding global climate change provide ample evidence, if any were necessary, of the need for a whole-system view of the Earth. Arguably the most visible – and controversial – attempt to understand Earth as a system has been Lovelock's Gaia theory. Gaia has been a fruitful hypothesis generator, and has prompted many intriguing conjectures about how biological processes might contribute to planetary-scale regulation of atmospheric chemistry and climate. In many important cases, however, these conjectures are refuted by the available data. For example, Gaia theory predicts that the composition of the atmosphere should be tightly regulated by biological processes, but rates of carbon uptake into the biosphere have accelerated by only about 2% in response to the 35% rise in atmospheric CO2 since pre-industrial times. Gaia theory would predict that atmospheric CO2 should be more sensitively regulated by terrestrial ecosystem uptake (which is biologically mediated) than by ocean uptake (which is primarily abiotic), but both processes are about equally insensitive to atmospheric CO2 levels. Gaia theory predicts that biological feedbacks should make the Earth system less sensitive to perturbation, but the best available data suggest that the net effect of biologically mediated feedbacks will be to amplify, not reduce, the Earth system's sensitivity to anthropogenic climate change. Gaia theory predicts that biological by-products in the atmosphere should act as planetary climate regulators, but the Vostok ice core indicates that CO2, CH4, and dimethyl sulfide – all biological by-products – function to make the Earth warmer when it is warm, and colder when it is cold. Gaia theory predicts that biological feedbacks should regulate Earth's climate over the long term, but peaks in paleotemperature correspond to peaks in paleo-CO2 in records stretching back to the Permian; thus if CO2 is biologically regulated as part of a global thermostat, that thermostat has been hooked up backwards for at least the past 300 million years. Gaia theory predicts that organisms alter their environment to their own benefit, but throughout most of the surface ocean (comprising more than half of the globe), nutrient depletion by plankton has almost created a biological desert, and is kept in check only by the nutrient starvation of the plankton themselves. Lastly, where organisms enhance their environment for themselves, they create positive feedback; thus Gaia theory's two central principles – first, that organisms stabilize their environment, and second, that organisms alter their environment in ways that benefit them – are mutually inconsistent with one another. These examples suggest that the further development of Gaia theory will require more deliberate comparison of theory and data.