Saturday, September 19, 2020

Wildfires--A Planetary Feature

Wildfires enable us to gain knowledge of our planet from unique perspectives. Currently one of the largest wildfire episodes in modern history has devastated the US west coast. Upwards of six million acres have burned in California, Oregon, and Washington. Tragically, the current known death toll is 36 with thousands of homes and other structures destroyed. Smoke from this conflagration was detectable across the country, even causing the sun to assume an unnatural appearance. 

The Creator designed our Earth system with divine wisdom. Some may pronounce Planet Earth “a place to thrive.” Others may see our planet as “a place of brokenness and despair.” In describing Planet Earth we have used the phrase “a place to thrive” eleven times in our past blog posts. In contrast we have used the phrase “a place of brokenness and despair” four times to describe what we feel is an errant description of our planetary home. 

Wildfires have been a feature of our planet for millions of years, as evidenced by the presence of fossil charcoal. Earth has been blessed with a just-right amount of CO2 to promote plentiful plant life. Animal life is sustained by plants with the support of a stable atmospheric composition of 21% oxygen. Taken together, we are blessed with plentiful carbon based plant life and plentiful oxygen—also just right amounts for the occasional combustion of plants in wildfires. 

But wait! Would we wish for less CO2 to provide less human food? or less oxygen in order to reduce wildfires? Atmospheric oxygen combines with carbon fuels such as petroleum and natural gas, increasing the atmospheric composition of CO2 ever so slightly. CO2, a so-called greenhouse gas, has contributed moderately to the world temperature rise of about 1ºC in the last century. There are other factors causing rising world temperature. This 1º change does not explain the proliferation of current wildfire events. Blaming west coast wildfires on global warming is an error of unprecedented dimensions.

We return to the fact that wildfires have occurred on Earth ever since land plants appeared eons before the creation of humanity. Evidence exists that thousands of wildfires occurred long before CO2-driven global warming was touted as a ‘scientifically proven’ cause of wildfires. Today’s media catchphrase is “Look at the science.” There is much unsupported propaganda concerning ‘climate change.’ Today’s science does not demonstrate that west coast wildfires are caused by global warming. Science has, however, identified a multitude of weather conditions in the American west. Primarily, wildfires are driven and exacerbated by periodic drought, high temperatures, wind, and low humidity. These conditions are common on the west coast and always have been seasonally present. Wildfires could be up to 85% human-caused—campfires, smoking, equipment malfunction, and arson—depending on site proximity to humans. Natural causes of wildfires commonly include dry lightning and rarely, volcanoes.

A search of the history of western wildfires before 1850 reveals fewer devastating fires equal to current west coast events. California was basically undeveloped in the first half of the 19th century. There were only about 8000 non-native colonists in 1840. If there were wildfires in the forests of California, no one sought to extinguish them. There was minimal loss of life and structures. Today many California residents live in hilly, wooded regions deemed to be beautiful and desirable for home placement, but prone to extreme fire danger. The problems of dense urbanization are exacerbated by deficient community planning and building codes. Annual coastal weather patterns should be carefully studied with an awareness of the existence of long term weather trends.

There are multiple examples of wildfires in our day. Fire plays a vital role in many ecosystems. One outstanding example is the 1988 fire which occurred in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, burning through 36% of its area. Prior to 1988 the spectacularly scenic Yellowstone ecosystem possessed unique charm but forests and diverse plant species quickly re-established themselves after the fires. Resilient wildlife survived better than expected. Our family visited Yellowstone both before and after the fires. We recall observing many areas of lodgepole pine in the process of natural re-establishment as we travelled through formerly burned areas.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, especially since 1972, controlled fires have been encouraged as a beneficial factor in forest management. These actions are opposed by some environmental groups who advocate against (1) harvest of mature trees (2) thinning of excess biomass, and (3) removal of dense underbrush. This results in over-accumulation of biomass and subsequent vulnerability to raging, fast-moving fires. In studying forest management issues we realize the matter is complex and far from simple. Large populations, mountainous topography, and unique weather patterns in California make forest management especially challenging.  

There were many other historic tragic wildfires. In 1910 three million acres burned in Montana, Washington, and Idaho. It was dubbed the “Big Blowup.” Before that, the 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and Michigan was the deadliest: 1200+ killed, 3.8 million acres burned. The Great Hinckley Fire in Minnesota (1894) killed 418. In the same state 453 perished and 250,000 acres destroyed in the Cloquet fire of 1918.

Wildfires may be considered either natural or man-caused disasters. We have reported  natural disasters over which humans have no control. Examples are hurricanes, floods, droughts, volcanoes, and similar events. With wildfires, however, we possess a measure of control, either by avoiding careless fires or by wise implementation of controlled burns for reducing the severity of future fires and improving current forest conditions.  According to Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University, “Native Americans knew that to regenerate plant species that they wanted for food, and to feed game animals they relied on, they needed to burn the forest understory regularly.”

We have quoted Genesis 1:28 many times in our posts: God instructed humans, “…..Be fruitful and increase in number: fill the earth and subdue it…..” We posit that modern humans must actively study and manage the creation for their own benefit and for the glory of the Creator. This amplifies the meaning of subdue in terms of inspired creation care.       




Sunday, September 6, 2020

Concerns of 2020 in Past History

Our contemporary national immersion in the COVID-19 pandemic and racism protests calls to mind events in U.S. history. The 2020 pandemic has produced dire effects on world economies. Serious as it is, the death toll approaching 200,000 pales with the US and worldwide toll of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Less well-known is the devastating multi-disease pandemic which wiped out a majority of native Americans following Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Up to 90% of native Americans perished from pathogens initially transported to the New World by explorers and settlers—a human tragedy of horrifying dimensions. 

If readers were quizzed on themes dominating the news cycles of 2020, most respondents would place COVID-19 and racism at the top of their lists. Coronaviruses have been known for many years, but other virus types have garnered more attention. The crowned virus has become an icon of today’s coronavirus conversation—a symbol of public focus on the life-changing pandemic dominating our contemporary lives. The relationship of the COVID-19 phenomenon and racism is a difficult topic, but worthy of our attention. Protests against racism and related discrimination have unfortunately morphed into disorder and violence.

When the novel COVID-19 virus originated in China, many people accused analysts who  highlighted its geographic origin as being racist or xenophobic. Accusations of racism are manifest in other spheres. For example, people abhor aggressive, unjust law enforcement questioning, and worse, disproportionate deaths of criminal suspects detained by police officers. We are thankful such incidents are unusual and rare. In our day racism is linked with a wide variety of humanity’s problems. We are thankful national civil rights legislation of the 1960s prohibited forms of legal racism. We pray that inherent racism would also be suppressed. This sort of racism and discrimination does not disappear by legislation—it depends on a divine miracle in the human heart.

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Old World explorers from Spain, France, England, Portugal, and The Netherlands possessed a variety of motivations when they boarded their vessels for trans-oceanic travel to the west. Historians have narrowed the goals of Old World explorers to the “three Gs”—God, gold, and glory. They desired a quick western route to the Far East but New World continents blocked their way. Exploitation of New World riches compensated for their disappointment at failing to find a better route to eastern Asia. Some European explorer/missionaries were intent on Christianizing the natives they physically contacted. Some missionaries denounced all forms of oppression and enslavement of indigenous peoples. Other explorers promoted national imperialism and their missionary zeal was non-existent. The character of human nature, much of it negative and self-serving, worked in diverse ways to disrupt the quality of life of indigenous populations.

Hundreds of written resources document the abuses indigenous Americans suffered at the hands of post-Columbian explorers and early settlers since 1492. Deliberately or not, the Old World immigrants brought devastating pathogens to indigenous New World populations. While arrivals from the Old World possessed some immunity to smallpox, measles, typhoid, plague, malaria, influenza, and a host of other diseases in their native lands, native populations in the Americas had no immunity because they had never been exposed to these diseases. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “virgin soil epidemic.” Consequently, the population of Mexico, Central America, and South America declined from 50 million (some historians estimate much larger figures) to a mere 1 to 2 million. Diseases also struck less populous Native Americans in the north.

Superimposed upon many explorers’ desires for God, gold, and glory was an inherent desire to exploit, steal from, and displace native populations for their own personal benefit. The horrible trade in human slaves was often perpetuated by unscrupulous, money-loving merchants. The slavery phenomenon was related to acquisition of cheap labor and consequent wealth, not to mention its moral injustice. Such merchants did not care about the justice or appropriateness of how they accumulated their wealth. They cared only that they acquired wealth. The unpleasant history of slavery in the New World is complex and disturbing. The slavery issue was a hemisphere-wide problem. Its link to racism is difficult to deny. 

The modern COVID-19 disease stokes fear of infection in 2020, especially for older residents. We are reminded that past pandemics are named for geographic regions, whether or not their origin is established as true beyond all doubt. In this way we understand that some could assign a racial component to COVID-19. In studying the science of viruses, we understand the topic has many ramifications, especially if the virus is invasive on a worldwide scale. (We recommend readers review our last three posts on invasive species by clicking 3X on the “Older Post” link.)

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Research on Native Americans and their susceptibility to viruses and racism called our attention to a tidbit of personal family history. Readers of our blog are fascinated with stories of their ancestors. So it is with my paternal ancestors: The Virkler family arrived in Northern New York State in 1834 from Switzerland. The region is now in Lewis County. Rudolph Virkler, his wife, and seven sons arrived after an ocean journey of more than a month. They were devout Christians attempting to escape the abuses of the state church and military conscription.

When they arrived in the New World they traversed many routes to their eventual homes in Northern New York State. In the case of the Virkler family, they settled in the neighborhood of the Oneidas, one of six nations of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy. One particular inspiring family story has been preserved. During the time of this event, Indian tribes were being moved to lands west of the Mississippi River under terms of the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830. The Virkler family made their livelihood from farm land carved from the native forest in the years to follow. Other families who also immigrated to Northern New York State from Europe lived in the same region.     

Not all Oneida Indians were willingly removed to lands farther west. Some of them were subjects of a story told by my paternal great-grandmother (1854-1936). Her mother, my great-great-grandmother (1818-1895), had told her daughter about Oneida Indians who visited their wilderness home “…..and were very friendly. Her mother gave them food to eat. They would lie on the floor, their coats rolled up for a pillow, and stretch their feet toward the fireplace making themselves very much at home.” (Genealogies of Three Large Families of Lewis County, New York, p. 143)

The family story above has its setting within the complex history of our country. Sadly, this history is fraught with stories of struggles against hardship and disease as well as battles with racism and discrimination. God looks down knowingly, mindful that “We are but dust” (Psalm 103:14 ESV). Verse 14 follows in the context of Psalm 103:3: God “forgives all your iniquity” and “heals all your diseases.” The psalmist, referencing “all your iniquities,” may refer to racism. Among “all your diseases,” he may refer to viral diseases like COVID-19, illnesses like smallpox and many others which decimated native populations in the New World.

Ultimately, these conditions will be banished and tears wiped away in the new heaven and new earth described in Revelation 21-22. This is the ultimate deliverance God provides for those redeemed by His Son.