January 28, 2005

DESIGNING NATURE (via Bryan Francoeur):

Study: Large fires created Australian desert (Reuters, 1/27/05)

Settlers who came to Australia 50,000 years ago and set fires that burned off natural flora and fauna may have triggered a cataclysmic weather change that turned the country's interior into the dry desert it is today, U.S. and Australian researchers said on Tuesday.

Their study, reported in the latest issue of the journal, Geology, supports arguments that early settlers literally changed the landscape of the continent with fire.

"The implications are that the burning practices of early humans may have changed the climate of the Australian continent by weakening the penetration of monsoon moisture into the interior," Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who led the study, said in a statement. [...]

People are also blamed for killing off 85 percent of Australia's huge animals, including an ostrich-sized bird, 19 species of marsupials, a 25-foot-long (7.5-meter) lizard and a Volkswagen-sized tortoise.

Some experts have suggested climate change caused by burning killed off these species, rather than direct hunting by human.

Nature doesn't select--we do.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 28, 2005 1:54 PM

Perhaps you need to review the history of the Yellowstone Caldera.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 28, 2005 1:56 PM

I think it's more interesting that the real ecological devastation of Australia would then have been done by the "in balance, nature respecting" aboriginals. It would put modern practices in perspective.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 28, 2005 2:05 PM

But the lightning from tstorms has nothing to do with it??

Posted by: at January 28, 2005 2:42 PM

Lightning-strike fires typically don't become firestorms unless there's too much dry fuel in the forest. Disease or drought can cause that, but the culprit's usually bad policy (suppressing small fires, not thinning enough.) This is a big problem west of the Mississippi right now, for both reasons.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 28, 2005 3:30 PM

What? We're not part of nature? Oh, sorry, I didn't get the memo...

Posted by: M. Murcek at January 28, 2005 4:46 PM

When the NPS was making the argument for introducing their imported Canadian wolves to replace the ones they exterminated in the 1920s, one of the official talking points being used was that we "need to restore the ecosystem, and make it complete." (No mention of restoring Shoshoni and Blackfeet, though.) If we were going to "restore" things to a previous time, I suggested that we go back 10,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistoscene, when the entire park was covered in ice. The technical problems might be difficult, but the end result would definitely be easy to manage.

As for Yellowstone and fires, everyone (i.e., the NPS management bureaucracy) knew that there were century long cycles of major conflagrations there. I've got a copy of the March 1988 Fire Management planning document which makes the point that fires in the park come in two classes, small, usually less than 1000 acres, and huge, well over 100,000 acres, and not much in the middle. The plans then went into great detail on managing the first case, while dismissing the latter case because, to paraphrse, "we can only hope it doesn't occur on our watch, because when it does, we're SOL."

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 28, 2005 6:03 PM

A Volkswagen-sized tortoise? Perhaps the shell (once cleaned, of course) made a nice shelter for vacationing at the beach.

Posted by: ratbert at January 28, 2005 6:56 PM

A Volkswagen-sized tortoise?

Still relatively common in France.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 28, 2005 8:22 PM

"Nature doesn't select--we do."
What; the two are mutually exclusive?

Posted by: Tom at January 29, 2005 7:46 PM

As far as oj's concerned, yes.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 29, 2005 8:21 PM

We are Intelligence, not Nature.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2005 9:35 PM

They were selecting for a howling desert?

The outcome, presumably, was not what they were after.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 31, 2005 1:37 AM

But admittedly intelligent design.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 7:21 AM

Neither intelligent, if they didn't get what they wanted, nor design, if what they got was not what they intended.

If any action and any outcome can be considered 'intelligent design' then you have gutted it of any meaning more effectively than I could.

And also read any active deity out of the concept.

You want to be more careful lest you lame your stalking horse.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 1, 2005 12:35 AM


I don't buy Intelligent Design, but, yes, obviously when intelligence shapes the design of the biosphere it is intelligent design, even if stupid. Poodles are heinous, but a product of intelligent design.

Posted by: oj at February 1, 2005 12:44 AM