Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant the accuracy of closed captions. These are derived automatically from the broadcaster's signal.
How Earth Made Us -

View in ParlView

(generated from captions) Our planet has immense power, it has dominated us. and for most of human history how the forces of the planet, In the series so far we've seen

the deep Earth, wind... ..and water on human history. have all had major impacts us and the planet is changing. But now the relationship between

We're no longer at its mercy. a major planetary force. We have now become shape human history, planet have helped The fundamental elements of our of nature to be reckoned with. but now we ourselves are a force of the Earth, Even in the wildest corners you can't escape our human influence.

what does that mean for our future? The question is

with the planet, of our changing relationship If you want to get a sense is the place to come. then this vast expanse of mud

This is no ordinary mud. The towering column of steam within the Earth at boiling point. shows that this mud is emerging from I'm in Indonesia, active countries on Earth. one of the most volcanically

of this strange phenomenon. Which is a clue to the origin You know, what's happening down there eruptions on Earth. is one of the most unusual but it's not spewing out molten lava. It's a volcano, That is a mud volcano.

This volcano began erupting in 2006, it's been a disaster. and for the people who live here, displaced by the mudflow, Around 30,000 people have been have been destroyed. and around 10,000 homes is truly enormous, You know, the scale of this it's surrounded by villages, and all the way around with the that there. and many of them are half flooded these trees here. Look at that, completely burying there's a real sense of desolation. Down on the ground, of the scene that strikes you most, Up close, it's the sheer oddness alongside the roof of a mosque, like the fact that I'm walking the centre piece of a village a mosque that was once in solid mud beneath me. that now lies entombed Such an eerie feeling. to reclaim this place from humanity. It's as if the planet has decided Life has been completely smothered. that makes this eruption unique. But there's something And that is what it was caused by. is really special, The eruption going on out there it's not natural at all. because it's almost certain by human activities, Geologists think it was triggered for natural gas went horribly wrong. when an underground probe in search of gas, In 2006, developers were drilling they withdrew the drill. but at around 3,000 metres, then dropped, The pressure in the well from surrounding rock. which sucked in hot water This caused fractures in the rock. Water burst through and shot upwards mixing with layers of mudstone that boiled to the surface. to form a liquid mud Every day, enough mud emerges Olympic-size swimming pools. to fill more than 40 constructed. enormous levees have been To try to contain the flow, are still trying to channel mud Wallowing machines away from the surrounding villages. into the centre of the volcano Concrete blocks have even been thrown in an attempt to "plug" it. this relentless tide has failed. But every effort to hold back To me, this eruption symbolises with the planet today. our strange relationship an incredibly powerful force now, On the one hand, we are volcanic eruptions. capable of triggering really in control of that power. But on the other hand, we're not planet even takes us by surprise. Much of the effect we have on the our impact on the planet These days, it's easy to see the story of an Eden destroyed. in a negative light - But our relationship with the Earth and surprising than that. is far more intriguing We have a much longer history of than you might think. transforming the planet have been bad news. And not all of those changes

To go back to the start of the story, I'm off to Canada's Rocky Mountains.

This mountain scenery is spectacular, sculpted by one of the Earth's great cycles, a cycle that's not only transformed the surface the planet, to our history. important for our evolution, but it's also been critically It's the cycle of the ice ages. have been a battleground For millennia, the Rockies geological forces. for immensely powerful creating these dramatic peaks Ice has carved this landscape, out of the rock. and cutting deep valleys one million years or so, You know, for the past and forth between long ice ages - our planet's been swinging back were embedded deep in the ice - when mountains like these like we're in now. and much shorter warm periods, small changes in the Earth's orbit, The ice waxed and waned according to the amount of heat and that influenced of the Earth's surface. falling on different parts pretty well understood. The ice age cycle is I mean, it's not an exact science, complicating factors, and there are plenty of

that scientists can predict but what it means is and when they should end. when ice ages should begin something. geologists had been missing But until recently, a more accurate understanding New data has provided between ice ages - of temperature changes periods known as interglacials.

that during past interglacials, The data shows temperatures steadily declined. into the present interglacial, If that pattern had continued into a new ice age. we would now be heading of what that would have meant. From here you get a good idea to the present day, If cooling had continued and smothered the whole valley. that ice would have crept down From about 7,000 years ago, started to fall. temperatures would have would have spread out In Europe, the glaciers of the Alps across alpine meadows. had continued to follow If the cycle of the ice ages the same pattern as in the past, then human history would have followed a very different course. But it didn't happen. It was the ice age that never was. If you like, a great escape. from following the same rhythms So what prevented the ice that it always followed in the past? There's a clue in the timing. Just when it should have been getting cooler, a major change to the planet was under way. Farming. It's thought that farming began around 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, in what's known as the Fertile Crescent. It took a while to catch on, but by 7,000 years ago it was spreading fast, across Europe and Asia. Even though our numbers were still small, farming had a big impact on the planet. Fires were used to clear the forests for farmland, which increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We domesticated wild animals, which produce a lot of methane. Both carbon dioxide and methane are powerful greenhouse gases. This new theory suggests that the gentle rise in greenhouse gases meant that instead of temperatures falling, as they had in the past, they stayed steady. The rise of farming was enough to halt the onset of the next ice age. It's fascinating to think that as far back as 7,000 years ago we had already made an impact on the planet at a global scale. This was the beginning of our role as a force of planetary change. Since then, human progress has been defined by our ability to find ever more inventive ways of exploiting the planet's natural systems. Around 5,000 years ago, our ancestors discovered that trapped within certain types of rock were metal ores. These mineral-rich rocks were formed deep inside the Earth over millions of years. The metals they released could be transformed into tools, the foundation of civilisation. By 2,000 years ago, people had found ingenious ways to intercept the water cycle. They tapped fresh water underneath deserts and used it to create some of the first cities. Around 500 years ago, sailors learnt how to exploit the power of the Earth's wind systems. They used them to develop global ocean trade routes. And more recently, we discovered that the fossilised remains of plants and animals, coal and oil, could become major sources of energy. Each of these discoveries was a landmark in our ability to use planetary systems for our own purposes. Today, the way in which we use the Earth's resources can be summed up by this... It's just great to be able to get up close to one of these beautiful machines. They're so elegant and streamlined.

A kind of fusion of precision engineering and raw power. It's absolutely beautiful. But as a geologist, I can't help seeing these planes through a different lens. Just look at what goes into making one... Aluminium, or aluminum, comes from a mineral called bauxite. It's the most abundant metallic element in the Earth's crust, which has been concentrated within rock over millions of years. Perspex - in its most basic form, oil. It's made inside the Earth over hundreds of thousands of years from dead organic matter.

And the wiring, loads of copper from a mineral like malachite. Anyway, you get the picture. This thing comes from the Earth. In many ways, it feels like modern life is detached from the planet,

but actually we're linked to it in hundreds of subtle and surprising ways. This plane is a huge conglomeration of natural resources that have all been precisely extracted, transformed, moulded and connected by us. And what's staggering is the scale on which we do this.

This airbase in the Arizona desert is home to over 4,000 planes. Many of them will never fly again. Effectively, this is a vast accumulation of the planet's minerals. Our impact on the planet is felt not just in what we transform, but also in what that transformation leaves behind. I've come here because rivers carry and deposit sediment. This is what forms the rocks of the future. The old geological hammer's not much use here. Urgh! You know, there's a lot of things in here that I would expect. There's lots of plant remains, some pollen grains. I see a few snail shells. But in amongst all that there's some very odd little fragments, like, a-ha, just here. Now that...looks like a little shell, but it's not. It's made of plastic... and what that is is a little plastic pellet, the kind of plastic pellets that go into making plastic bags, plastic bottles. There's more of them, there's loads of them, there's another one. And look at that, it's a plastic seal of a bottle. Now, that may not be so surprising when you consider exactly where this river is... I'm right in the centre of Los Angeles, home to around four million people and all that goes with them. But the impact of plastics reaches much further than major cities. Globally, around 26 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, where it becomes part of something much bigger. In the Pacific Ocean, plastic from America is swept into a large revolving ocean current known as a gyre. As this current circulates, it also picks up material from East Asia. Over time, these plastics accumulate in enormous flotillas. One of them is so big it's even got its own name -

the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. Eventually, the plastic is broken down by the sun's ultraviolet rays into smaller particles, that sink to the sea floor, where they are buried. It's the first stage in their transformation into sedimentary rock. The Grand Canyon is a striking example of the scale this process operates on. These cliffs were once an ancient seabed,

formed over millions of years, as layer after layer of sediment built up. Under immense pressure, these layers were cemented together to form the rock strata we see today. The plastics that lie at the bottom of the ocean will eventually form part of the rocks of the future - our geological legacy. You know, it's a sobering thought that from the planet's point of view, our enduring signature, the thing that marks out the modern human age in geological terms, will be the dead weight of millions of tonnes of different kinds of plastics. Our ability to take the Earth's resources and transform and deposit them in vast quantities means we've now made an indelible mark in the planet's 4.5 billion-year history. We can slice the tops off mountains and dig holes big enough to bury a city. In a single year, we now move more earth and rock than all the natural processes of erosion put together. Our machines have transformed the planet. So great is our impact on the Earth that it has been used to define a new geological epoch... ..the Anthropocene, the human epoch. If you add together all the landscapes we've altered - our cities, towns, villages and farmland - then 75% of the Earth's ice-free landmass owes its appearance to us. This truly is a human planet. Sometimes our intervention in the planet's natural processes can have surprising and far-reaching consequences. This is South Dakota in the United States. It's hard to believe it, but this was once a busy little town, up to 300 people living here in its heyday. It's hard to imagine it as a jostling little farming community, but that's exactly what it was. In the early 1900s, this was a boom town. Farmers poured into the Great Plains of the western USA

to develop new land. You'd think this place would be fantastic for farming. The whole landscape is covered in a thick blanket of silts and clays, blown or washed in after the last ice age. Soil is a mixture of minerals from broken-down rocks

and nutrients from organic matter. It takes more than 500 years to create just 2cm of it. What keeps that fine sediment here is the vegetation - the grasses bind the topsoil together. But the first settlers ploughed over those grasses

and exposed the delicate soil underneath, and that dried out in the sun. When the rains failed in the 1930s, the ploughed-up soil was exposed to the full force of the wind. The result was devastating. It became known as the Dust Bowl.

Half a million people in the Great Plains were made homeless. 100 million acres of farmland turned to wasteland. The homesteaders of the Great Plains had upset the delicate balance of the landscape. 80 years on, that delicate balance is one we still find hard to keep.

In China, deforestation and overgrazing means soils are being degraded 30 times faster than the planet's natural processes can replenish them.

In Australia, clearing large areas of bush for farmland has allowed salt to infiltrate the topsoil, damaging around 60,000 square kilometres. In total, 25% of the world's farmland has now been degraded as an inadvertent consequence of our drive to increase food production.

There's now an extraordinary contrast between the Earth's natural environments and the ones that we've created. To fully appreciate the extent of our interference in the planet's natural processes, take a look at one of the Earth's most fundamental cycles... ...the water cycle. Rain that falls over mountains makes its way into streams and rivers.

This is the Lena River. Its headwaters are in the Baikal Mountains, where rain and snowmelt set the cycle going. It travels 4,500 kilometres across Siberia... ...before it reaches a huge delta, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Here it returns water to the sea, which evaporates to form clouds, and the cycle begins again. The Lena is one of the few major rivers that still completes the water cycle from source to sea

without a single man-made interruption. Today, we've created an alternative water cycle. This is part of the Colorado River system. Along its 2,000-kilometre length, it has over 20 dams. So much water is diverted to the cities and farmland of the American West that most years, it no longer reaches the sea. The biggest city it supplies is Los Angeles.

Fresh water is delivered across hundreds of kilometres of desert via a network of aqueducts, canals and pipelines. This system delivers 90% of the city's fresh water. Without it, LA wouldn't exist. The veins and arteries of our water supply are the lifeblood of our civilisation. And the human version of this planetary cycle operates at a global scale. We have altered the planet's water cycle to such an extent that five times as much fresh water is stored in reservoirs as flows in all the world's rivers. This change in the balance of power between us and the planet is based more than anything on our ability to exploit one particular resource. This is the Athabasca River, in the heart of Alberta in Canada. It doesn't look like it, but today this is a fresh frontier in one of the great geological quests of our age - the hunt for oil. Oil is central to our lives. It fuels a mechanised world. It's a concentrated form of energy, easily transported. Every year we burn around 31 billion barrels of it - that's 1,000 barrels a second. The problem is... it won't last forever. The amount of oil we're burning each year takes the planet over three million years to make. Thanks... Finding more oil is getting harder. Some say we've already reached a peak in oil production, it's all downhill, and that from now on with demand. with supply unable to keep pace that's a load of rubbish - But others say it's just a case of finding it. there's plenty of oil in the ground, one of their prime exhibits is here. For those in the second camp, I've come to find. Look at this. Ah, now, this is what doesn't it? Looks like the rock's bleeding, This place is just full of oil... you look at it, the thing is... coming out of the rock, and if Look at that - ugh! it, it would come out. You feel as if, if you just squeeze sand grains are just coated in oil. It's actually a sand, but all the we call it tar sands - We've got a name for this -

the dirtiest oil around. and this is just about The whole cliff is just full of it. shooting out in a great fountain. This kind of oil doesn't come by drilling down into the ground. And you don't get at it oilfield. This is a very different type of is, you have to go up high. To appreciate just how different it

we've gone into a different world. Oh, my... Look at that! It's like contain This oil deposit is thought to almost a trillion barrels of oil. It covers 50,000 square kilometres. The forest just ends there, I mean, look at that.

for miles upon miles. and then after that, just industry scraping the surface To get at the tar sands involves off vast tracts of land. This is strip mining for oil. both the huge attraction of tar sands Right below me, you can see and their Achilles heel. there's just vast amounts of oil - On the one hand, forever. those fields seem to go on and on getting it out comes at a price, But on the other hand, a hell of a price. Although it's at the surface, it's much harder to extract than conventional oil. To separate the oil from the sand, have to be injected into it, huge volumes of steam and that's expensive. around 25 barrels of oil back you'd expect In a traditional oil well, for every one barrel of energy you use to extract it. Here, it's more like one barrel of energy in and only five barrels back. You know, tar sands may be messy, out of them than we put in. but we still get more energy

they're one of our best prospects. So as far as oil's concerned, an appealing image of hope, is it? But it's not exactly Can't help but think... the bottom of the barrel. that we really are scraping that the oil is still out there. The tar sands illustrate are being discovered. And new sources exceptionally hard to reach. It's just they tend to be to find new forms of energy, our ingenuity has enabled us For centuries, that trend will continue. so it's easy to think tend to run out of resources. History tells us that we don't we find new ones. Instead, when push comes to shove, from human history. But that is a lesson a more important lesson for us. The planet's history has perhaps on the planet - dramatic human influence It's a lesson about the most we're changing the atmosphere. the speed and scale at which are higher than at any time Levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the last 15 million years. some of the effects. We can already see has almost halved. The thickness of the Arctic sea ice we've pumped into the atmosphere Some of the extra carbon dioxide has been absorbed by the oceans. their acidity by 30%, This has increased of marine creatures, like corals. hindering the growth Over the last few decades, the frequency of extreme hurricanes has doubled in some areas. of a dramatic period of change. We're at the beginning is the greenhouse effect, At the heart of it the gases we release. a global warming caused by - and our civilisation - The question is, how will the planet respond to this change? this question is to look back For me, the best way to answer into the Earth's past. to the coast of California. Which is why I've come

going on in the ocean over here - There's something really strange it's fizzing away like mad. the whole water looks as if I've never known anything like it. This promises to be an unusual dive. to the last time The point is to take me back

extreme increase in greenhouse gases. the Earth experienced a rapid and It's amazing. It's like... it's like swimming in champagne. Everywhere you look, you're surrounded with bubbles. wherever you are, one of the Earth's great events. are the key to unlocking These bubbles went through something very similar 55 million years ago, the atmosphere to the changes happening today. called methane, The bubbles are full of a gas of a fault line deep below me which is leaking out to the atmosphere. and heading up there factor. bubble release that's a critical And it's this speed and intensity of of methane bubble out Today, only relatively small amounts at the bottom of the ocean. from seeps like this But 55 million years ago, the ocean in massive quantities. methane started to erupt from

why it happened, No-one is quite sure would have been bubbling like this. but huge areas of the ocean 55 million years ago, wouldn't have been fizzing out, these bubbles a devastating effect. It would have had they would have been belching out. as a greenhouse gas. than carbon dioxide Methane is 20 times more potent

through those ancient oceans, And as it burst up runaway global warming. it led to sudden, 55 million years ago That burst in methane levels was the closest experience we've got global warming might bring. of what continued to the planet So what was it that happened in global warming? during that ancient surge

And what did it mean for life? The answer can be found on the Svalbard archipelago. nearly 8,000 kilometres away, It's well within the Arctic Circle. is covered in glaciers. 60% of Svalbard

It's a landscape dominated by ice. it was rather different. But 55 million years ago, The clues are in the rocks. Let's see what we've got. Ooh! Ooh, look at this. It's what I was hoping to find. These rocks are stacked full of ancient leaves. Look, there's a frond of a plant there. There's another one here. There's a stem with branches going out. These rocks are packed full... of leaves. Better keep going. HE CHUCKLES Look at this! Would you believe it?! These fossil leaves originate from a time just after the methane surge in the oceans. They're from a distant relative of the beech, a broad-leafed deciduous tree. Some of these trees are preserved in the permafrost in other parts of the Arctic. It's amazing. You can just imagine these falling down from trees onto an ancient forest floor. But, I mean, today... you don't get trees here. You don't get trees like this for hundreds of miles. It just tells you that 55 million years ago, Svalbard was a very different place. Following the methane surge in the ocean, global temperatures would have been 10 degrees warmer than they are today. It caused immense upheaval. Plants and animals were forced to migrate towards the poles. Back then, I would have been walking through a completely different landscape - subtropical swamps and forest. Less High Arctic - more Florida Everglades. It would have been inhabited by ancestors of creatures like the hippopotamus and the crocodile. The lesson from the Earth's past is that the world we know today can change out of all recognition, simply by raising the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But the remarkable events of 55 million years ago offer another, more optimistic, lesson for us. Clearly this extraordinary warm period 55 million years ago didn't last - otherwise, I wouldn't be dressed like this. The planet cooled, ice came to the Arctic. So what happened? What happened was the Himalayas. The creation of this mountain range helped return ice to the Arctic. When the tectonic plates of India and Eurasia collided around 50 million years ago, the result was a mountain range that grew to become the biggest on Earth. In building the Himalayas, the planet unleashed its most formidable global-cooling weapon... ..weathering. The process begins when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is dissolved in rain and snow. This reacts with minerals in the rock to form a solution that's carried by rivers to the sea. Here, the carbon is absorbed by marine creatures. When these die, they sink to the sea floor, eventually becoming rock, locking the carbon away. Because the Himalayas were constantly rising, they were perpetually exposing new rock to the elements. This drew more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, cooling the planet and eventually leading to the re-freezing of the Arctic. So the planet had an entirely natural way of reducing greenhouse gases. But there's one obvious problem, and that is it takes millions of years to build a mountain range, and we don't have the luxury of that sort of time. Yet the lesson from history is not entirely wasted. Burying carbon has long been the sole preserve of the planet, but there's no reason why we can't have a go at doing the same thing ourselves. We are now developing ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere. One method is to stimulate the growth of immense blooms of algae that use photosynthesis to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On land, there are plans to create artificial trees that replicate photosynthesis. But the biggest challenge is to stop carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere in the first place. This can be done by capturing it at source, filtering it from industrial chimneys and then burying it.

Scientists are planning to try this out on Svalbard. If you happen to have thousands of tonnes of carbon to dispose of, the geology here is particularly helpful. That cliff behind me is a layer cake of sandstone and shale. And that arrangement is perfect for burying carbon. This sandstone is ideal for storing the carbon, because there's lots of spaces in the pores between the grains. And this dense, impermeable shale provides the ideal lid that stops the carbon escaping upwards. The plan is to drill a number of shafts through the dense shale lid and into the sandstone. Carbon dioxide will then be pumped down into the sandstone, where it will be locked within the pores of the rock.

Carbon capture won't solve our greenhouse gas problem, but it might at least buy us some time to develop cleaner forms of energy. Burying and locking away carbon is an attempt to accelerate massively what the Earth has done for millions of years. It's the beginning of a new approach to the planet, deliberately transforming it to try and preserve the conditions for our survival. Up until now, the effects of our impact on the planet, whether good or bad, have been accidental and unintended. Whether it's a mud volcano in Indonesia or altering the Earth's climate, we never set out to create these changes. Science has given us an understanding of how the planet works that allows us to protect ourselves against Earth's unpredictable nature. But today, we're on the brink of a new era. We can now take control of our impact on the planet's natural processes and maintain the conditions for civilisation to flourish. It's a big challenge, which involves global co-operation. But there's an example of what can be achieved here in Svarlbad.

You know, you'd never know it, but locked inside this mountain is something incredibly precious. And that...that's the way in. It's got a front door! HE CHUCKLES It looks like something out of James Bond! To protect its contents, this facility in Svalbard has been built high enough to be above any future rise in sea level. It's been excavated so deep into the mountain that it would survive a nuclear explosion. This is apocalypse planning for our future survival. You know, this is a giant vault, but in a way it's the modern equivalent of a Noah's ark,

except that instead of sheltering animals, it's preserving the future of the world's food supply. The temperature is a constant minus 18 degrees Celsius to protect the precious contents stored here.

This is a shrine to over 10,000 years of agricultural development. It's a global seed vault. I mean, take this - this is rice. But the thing is, there's not just one variety of rice in here, there's thousands, with different properties and different growing conditions, different resistance to disease. This is the genetic diversity of rice for the future. But of course it's not just about rice. This vault will one day store every variation of every staple crop from every country on the planet.

It's a heck of an insurance policy. You know, for me, preserving these seeds,

with all their precious genetic code, makes a really important point. And that is, we're taking conscious control over an uncertain world. And in that sense, this whole place is like a symbol of what can be achieved at a global level, if we put our minds to it.

In this series, we've seen how the fate of past civilisations has been shaped by the planet's natural forces. The Khmers of Angkor Wat thrived on their ability to exploit the monsoon until their growing population outstripped their most precious resource - water. The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon came to ruin when a change in the El Nino cycle led to a sudden, prolonged drought. The Minoans of Santorini flourished in blissful ignorance of the volcano beneath them that would one day would destroy their civilisation.

Today, our relationship with the planet is a different one. We are now a geological force to rival the Earth's natural forces. The ultimate test will be how well we use that power. As a species, we like to think that we're special.

Well, this is our chance to prove it.

This Program is Captioned Live.

Good evening, Ali Moore with a

Lateline Update. More than 200 angry flood victims have confronted

politicians and insurance industry rep

representatives at a fiery public

meeting in Ipswich. The meeting at a

local bowls club was local bowls club was organised to

allow flood victims to air their concerns. There were angry scenes as

residents voiced their frustration

over the way they've been treated by

insurance companies. Federal assistant

assistant treasurer, Bill Shorten,

was among those who attended the meeting.

meeting. Mr Shorten released a

proposed standard definition for a

flood, developed in consultation

flood, developed in consultation with the insurance industry and consumer

groups. Workplace bullies in

will face up to ten years

groups. Workplace bullies in Victoria will face up to ten years in jail

under changes to stalking laws. The cr

criminalisation of bullying was

prompted by the death of 19-year-old

Brodie Panlock in 2009. She took Brodie Panlock in 2009. She took her

life after being

life after being relentlessly

life after being relentlessly bullied

in the cafe where she worked. Both

employers and unions have welcomed

the laws, but say there needs to be

an education campaign about what

actually constitutes bullying. We'll have a

have a full report on have a full report on Lateline. And

the epidemiologist and the mobile

phone. We'll be joined from

Washington by Devra Davis. She's the

author of a new book warning author of a new book warning about mobile phone

mobile phone radiation. We'll ask her to justify her conclusions. That

interview and much more coming up on

lateline tonight at 10:35.