How Earth Made Us


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29-03-2011 08:26 PM



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29-03-2011 08:26 PM


Tonight it's Fire - deadly, yet a driving force behind human progress. For all its danger fire is compelling, almost hypnotic. The paradox of fire is that it's lethal and yet we depend on it completely. Fire generates our electricity.


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How Earth Made Us -

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Our planet has immense power... in our history books. ..and yet that's rarely mentioned I'm here to change that. history. of the planet has shaped our I'm looking at four ways the power for our conquest of the planet. the raw materials The deep Earth that provided the rise and fall of empires. Wind...that has influenced Water. Look at that! the character of civilisations. has defined Our struggle to control it But this week I'm looking at fire. It's deadly, behind human progress. yet it's also the driving force that events deep in the Earth's past But our dependence on fire has meant have changed the course of history. The vibrate is a low-air alarm. a quarter of a tank of oxygen. It'll let you know when you've got you need to get out. Get out. OK. When you hear that, to undergo an experience that, I'm preparing is absolutely terrifying. on the face of it, AIR HISSES temperature it reaches inside the These stickers are to measure the actually getting inside the suit. These will tell you how hot you're 130 degrees Fahrenheit. So how hot does it go up to? That goes over your head. Mm-hm. OK. I'm fine. My suit is eight layers thick, gold-plated glass. its visor specially tempered, And I've got my own air supply. to survive just a few seconds... This is what it takes HISSING ..inside the heart of a fire. FLAMES ROAR AND CRACKLE is 1,600 degrees Celsius. The temperature around me fire is compelling - For all its danger, almost hypnotic. Oh, my gosh! Argh! Argh! HIS BREATHING HISSES Get his gloves off. MAN: Get his gloves. Argh! Oh! MAN: Come on out. Go on! Go on! That was scary, right at the end. INAUDIBLE QUESTION That was scary. though. Ha-hargh! No, no, no. I feel my arms burning, I'll move them around. Ah! That... where humans should be. ..that is not a place But when you're going through licking up in front of you, and you see the flames is absolutely entrancing. just the raw energy of it But I'm burning. my hand... Argh-ha-ha! I mean, actually, my elbow, ..is burning. actually. I think I should get this off, is that it's lethal, The paradox of fire and yet we depend on it completely. Fire generates our electricity. It drives our machines. We use it every day. of our relationship with fire But the history has exerted enormous power reveals how the Earth and nations. over the fate of peoples that for 90% of Earth's history, It's strange to think there simply was no fire. of dust and rock. Ours was a barren planet There was nothing to burn. Not until relatively recently, about 400 million years ago, did fire first appear. The key to this transformation... ..vegetation. had just appeared... The first land plants ..and they provided fuel for fire. as well. But plants did something else Every kid likes to climb trees, being grown up is the trees... and the great thing about to get up them just get fancier. they just get bigger, and the ways second crucial ingredient for fire. Vegetation supplied a HE GRUNTS up here in the forest canopy. You can see how chemical reaction - photosynthesis. Going on all around me is a in the leaves. It's happening in here, is producing as a waste product And what the photosynthesis

for fire... is an essential ingredient 13% of the atmosphere is oxygen. Flames cannot burn unless at least had almost none. But the Earth's early atmosphere carbon dioxide into energy... sunlight to convert Photosynthesising plants used oxygen. ..and in the process released By around 400 million years ago, of oxygen in the atmosphere this process had raised the level to that critical 13%. needed for fire to start. Now there was only one more thing THUNDER CRASHES A spark. was actually the easy bit. Starting fire Lightning storms have raged on Earth for almost its entire history. hit the ground every hour. 30,000 bolts of lightning THUNDER RUMBLES AND CRASHES CRACKLING AND ROARING For hundreds of millions of years, only by the forces of nature. wildfires were controlled They started spontaneously, spread freely... when they ran out of fuel ..and only stopped or the rains came. But then something changed. We came along. Around 1.5 million years ago, how to control fire. early humans learnt probably first captured fire Our distant ancestors a wildfire and keeping it nourished, by grabbing a burning stick from alight. fanning the flames to keep it transform the planet... of a relationship that would It was the beginning and us. fire is the human signature. In that sense, over our world. It gave us immense power the range of foods available to us. Cooking greatly expanded It gave us warmth and light... against hungry predators. ..and protection large areas of land. It allowed us to quickly clear began our conquest of the planet. Fire was the weapon that Fire was so central to our survival, civilisations. worshipped by some early perhaps it's no surprise that it was the world, Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in In the Middle East,

grew up around the worship of fire. the flame itself was sacred. For the Zoroastrians, been drawn to fire. Humans have always spirit far greater than ourselves - Flames have long been a symbol of a almost a divine presence. is still a potent symbol To this day, the eternal flame for the world's great religions. But the greatest landmark in our use of fire came about 6,000 years ago. The breakthrough centred on an extraordinary element - carbon. This is carbon in its purest form... ..diamond. This particular stone is 25 carats and apparently it's worth ?3.3 million. It's absolutely beautiful. Diamonds are made under extreme pressures and temperatures deep in the Earth. I've always loved the idea that the ultimate in glitz was to adorn ourselves in tiny pieces of the Earth's interior. Geological bling. But there are other forms of carbon that are far more valuable to us than this... ..because carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. And it's the key ingredient in fire. And once again, it depends on photosynthesis. Plants use the sun's energy to extract carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and use it to create their living tissue. It is this carbon that burns in a fire, releasing the energy that originally came from the sun as heat. The more carbon-rich a fuel is, the more heat it produces. Normal wood fires burn at about 700 degrees Celsius. But 6,000 years ago, our ancestors discovered the trick of burning wood in a low-oxygen environment. It only partially burns, but in doing so it creates a much purer, carbon-rich fuel... ..charcoal. And that can burn at 1,100 degrees Celsius... ..hot enough to melt metal out of rock. The invention of metal smelting, culminating in the use of iron, was one of the most critical turning points in human history. The age of metals had begun. HISSING CLANG! Our mastery of metal gave us tools... ..money and weapons. It was the foundation on which human progress was built. So much so that by the Middle Ages, the production of charcoal for iron smelting was a major industry. But there was an inevitable problem. People began to run out of wood. CRACKING, SPLINTERING AND RUSTLING In prehistoric times, Britain had been almost completely covered in forest, but by the end of the 16th century, 90% of the ancient woodland had gone. In London, which was growing fast, the shortage of accessible wood meant that the price rocketed. Around the growing cities of Europe and Asia, similar fuel shortages developed. In fact, the end of the 16th century was the world's first great energy crisis. In many societies, the demand for energy had reached the limits of what photosynthesis could provide. A new source of carbon was needed. And the planet had a solution. The answer to the energy shortage started out in cold, wet places... ..like here in Oregon, in the western United States. This looks like a perfectly ordinary - if very beautiful - lake, but these waters hold a secret. Because down there is a lost world...and a very cold one. Melting glaciers keep the water clear. Ghostly shapes appear in the distance... ..standing like sentinels. But this is not their natural home. These are 3,000-year-old tree trunks... ..the remains of a drowned forest.

They were submerged when lava from a nearby volcano dammed this valley and created the lake. These trees are completely waterlogged, but they're actually the crucial first stage in an extraordinary transformation. BREATHING HISSES Because the trees are under water, there is no oxygen to help rot them away. Instead, they're preserved, and eventually buried in mud at the bottom of the lake... which turns wood ..the start of a long transformation into something very different. Oh! That was incredible. HE SNIFFS It's absolutely freezing, though. there are precious few places The thing is, today, and get preserved, where whole forests die happening right across the globe. but 300 million years ago, this was It was just a lot warmer then! trees dominated the planet. 300 million years ago, were in lowland swamps. Many of these forests they fell into the water. So when the trees died, were buried In fact, so many carbon-rich trees history that this period in the Earth's is known as the Carboniferous - the Age of Carbon. Eventually, these drowned trees would be squeezed and cooked deep inside the Earth and turned into something new and different. Coal. Coal was to change our relationship with fire in a fundamental way. Instead of burning carbon from the present, coal gave us access to a huge new source of carbon from the Earth's past. Coal was, in essence, an immense store of fossilised sunshine. But coal wasn't evenly distributed across the Earth, and this meant that from the 17th century onwards, and crucial role in human history. the planet began to play a new a small, north-European island... The first place to benefit was Britain. Britain was lucky. It had an abundance of coal, collected from the surface. much of which could be easily of the 17th century, From the beginning in homes and workshops. burning coal began to replace wood It was the beginning of a transition and the world. that would end up changing Britain Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire. To see how, I'm heading to the easy-to-get-at coal to be used up, It didn't take long for all that to tunnel into the Earth, so the miners were forced chasing the coal seams underground, and down there they had a problem. it turned out, But it was a problem which, the Industrial Revolution. would unleash In the process, mining condemned millions to a dusty, dirty, existence as men and even children were sent underground. This mine is the nearest I can get to experiencing what early coal mining was like. It's owned by Robin Morgan, who's spent all his life mining. Is it falling down? No, I'm just putting this one back up. This is a new one I'm putting in here. So there we go. in that hole, like that. That's right - drop him down there The first mine I ever went down, I was only 13 years of age. Oh! My two brothers had their own mine. down a shaft 100 foot deep They used to drop me with two hooks in the side in a 40-gallon drum on a hand winch. I'm looking forward to seeing. So where's the coal? That's what is actually on in there. Well, the coal seam Yeah, please. I can take you on into the seam. Keep your head down here. Yeah, OK. Robin hacks out the coal by hand. Just like the early miners, do you think I could have a go? Robin, not much room up here. by all means, Iain. But there's You can have a go, All right. PANTS WITH EFFORT Ah, dear, dear! I thought coal was supposed to be soft! Swing the pick instead of just tapping it. You've got to pull the pick right back and swing it right into those two-inch layers, and they will prise off there. Oh! My arms hurt. How do you do it, Robin? You get used to it over the years, you know. I mean to say, you've only been up there five minutes. LAUGHING: I know! I have! HE SPITS And you've been... You will gradually get used to it. I like rocks all right, but... smashing lumps out of them... spending 12 hours a day isn't as hard as rocks. No. Well, that coal I definitely wouldn't give you a job, As you are performing at the moment, off, you would not survive. because the rate you're getting that But in the 17th and 18th centuries, the problem for Britain's miners than a lack of muscle power. was more fundamental the deeper they tunnelled, The trouble was, to encounter a major obstacle. the more likely they were Water, and plenty of it. the coal seams underground, first followed 300 years ago, when miners this was a problem they faced, to our industrial transformation. and solving this problem was the key water table, their tunnels flooded Once the miners got down to the and the coal became inaccessible. the water out by hand. It was impossible to pump was desperately needed... A technological solution engineers came up with one. ..and in the early 18th century, The steam engine. to pump water out of mines, It was designed specifically but it soon found other uses. of steam and coal became the force Within decades, the combined power integrated economy. behind an extraordinary, WHISTLE HOOTS which smelted steel. Coal fuelled the blast furnaces into trains and ships, The steel was turned which in turn burnt more coal. powered by steam engines of course, in our use of fire Today, we know this transformation as the Industrial Revolution. really focuses your mind. You know, being down here Britain owes a tremendous amount when trees ruled the world. to that distant geological age Think of the Industrial Revolution capitalism. as the rise of carboniferous with its favours. But the planet was fickle huge reserves of coal Britain was given and the geography to exploit it. Not everywhere was so lucky. There was another country with huge reserves of coal. blessed by the planet In the 17th century, of an industrial revolution, it too was poised on the edge played out rather differently. but its story That country was China. into a vast empire. By this time, China had been moulded and technologically advanced. It was rich

China seemed perfectly positioned to exploit its coal reserves. There was one problem. may have been massive, China's coal reserves the country's cities on the coast. but they were a long way from from the coalfields to the sea However, running straight was the mighty Yellow River. So, in theory, should have been possible. transporting the coal to the market on the Yellow River. This is Qikou, a beautiful old town of coal country. It's right in the heart

downstream to the coast, If coal was to be carried it would have to pass through here. Hello. How are you? these waters since he was 11. and he's been navigating Mr Li is 76 years old, His son runs a local ferry service. The water looks very calm. Very still - the water. Cos I get seasick. Can I get on? OK. are going to take me down the river The Li family a design used for generations. flat-bottomed boat - in a traditional, This is the route would have had to travel. that coal from China's coalfields down the Thames. It's like a nice, relaxing row is an obstacle. But just downstream from Qikou Mr Li and his friends, who boast an average age of 75, are the last people who know how to ride these rapids. SCRAPING the channel of the Yellow River These rapids are only here because and this hard rock here. boulders over here gets constricted between these between a rock and a hard place. It's literally caught It means it's really choppy. were laden down with coal. to get through if we And it would be even harder MAN SHOUTS Well, we made it! Just a couple of hairy moments, but... Mind you, it wasn't the worst set of rapids in the world, but it makes you realise that if you're taking a bulky cargo like coal down here, then either it or us are going to end up in the drink, at the bottom of the river. This is only the start. Downstream, there are many more rapids. MAN SHOUTS And just to add to the difficulties, the only way to get the boat back upriver is sheer manpower. What these rapids meant was that you could transport goods downstream as far as Qikou over there, but it was impossible to take it further. For cargo boats, these rapids were the end of the line. So the only way to get the coal to market was to carry it overland to the coast... ..1,000 kilometres away. But its price doubled every 40 kilometres. The geography of the Yellow River ensured that coal could never be shipped directly to the big coastal markets, and that meant that the empire was effectively cut off from the vast reserves that could have completely transformed it. The British invented the steam engine to overcome the barrier posed by flooded mines. But the Chinese failed to find a similar solution to their geographical problems. It was one of those moments when human factors interacted with the opportunities the planet had to offer. While Britain was forging an industrial revolution, the Chinese were building these enormous gardens at Chengde. They were designed to celebrate the size and diversity of the empire. There was a miniature replica of the Yellow River... ..a smaller version of the Great Wall... and even a copy of the Dalai Lama's palace in Tibet. These gardens symbolised China's preoccupation with managing its vast territory. It was such a high priority that rather than focusing on technological innovation, the brightest minds were sucked into running the empire. Not until the middle of the 20th century did China build extensive road and rail systems into its heartland and start its own industrial revolution. Ironically, China is now the biggest user and producer of coal in the world. China's rulers might not have found a way to solve their fuel crisis 300 years ago, but its people had a go. They came up with a brilliant invention, which today is known across the world. Until the 16th century, Chinese cuisine was renowned for its delicious stews, which took loads of time and loads of wood to cook. So in an era of growing wood shortage, a radical new approach was needed, and this was it - the wok. It's funny to think that a crippling wood famine gave us one of the most famous cuisines in the world - the Chinese stir-fry. The story of coal shows how the planet played a crucial role in transforming the fate of nations at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It turned fire into the energy that fuelled human progress. And yet that was only the beginning. Today, the planet's stores of ancient carbon have an even greater impact on our world. That impact hinges on another type of buried carbon. To see how it's formed, I've come to an amazing cave on an island off southern Iran. BANGING AND MUFFLED SPEECH MAN: Do this one up nice and tight. Cheers. Is it straight down? Yeah. There's a little bit of a lip and then it goes straight down, and then it opens out wide and you just drop into space. The last drop, 10-15 metres, you're in space. I just looked. Oh, my God! I have to abseil 50 metres to enter the cave system. Inside is evidence that reveals where this other store of ancient carbon comes from and how it's made. That is just plain weird. Look at those colours! I'm heading for some caverns that are even deeper underground. PANTING Phew! GRUNTS Oh! This...has got to be the toughest and scariest cave climb I've ever done. There's 100 metres of solid rock above me, but it's going to be worth it, because ahead is one of the most unusual cave systems in the world. Most caves are made from solid rock.

This cavern is different. Oh, wow, look at these! These are stalactites. They're the weirdest ones I've ever seen. Normally, stalactites are made of limestone and they drip vertically down, but these, if you look at them closely, they're made of small crystals that twist and turn. You can check what they're made of really easily. You just need to lick them. Wow! Yeah... salt. Written in the roof is a clue to where the salt came from. This magnificent, striped banding is a real giveaway clue. The layers are formed when seawater evaporates away, leaving behind a thin residue of salt crystal. This is all evidence that the salt rock was originally laid down in an ocean that dried up. To create so much salt, you need to evaporate an awful lot of seawater. Usually, this happens in shallow seas which get cut off from the rest of an ocean. Seawater then evaporates, leaving behind a thick layer of salt. But it's not only salt that gets left behind when an ocean evaporates. Shallow seas are the most biologically productive part of the ocean. They're teeming with life... ..all made from carbon. When marine creatures die, their skeletons build up on the sea floor. Over millions of years, these skeletons are transformed into a sludge of carbon and buried under sediment and layers of salt. One of the best places to see what that sludge ends up looking like... ..is in the republic of Azerbaijan.

Here they call it naftalan. It's been used as a health treatment for thousands of years, hailed as a cure for everything from rheumatism to baldness. Look at that! That looks disgusting! GURGLING It's said that 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians mixed this stuff with beer and drank it as a medicine. But there is another way to enjoy its healing properties. Ah... Ugh! It's so weird! Ah... Ugh! It's so clingy. Oh, my God! Oh... Ah... People have been doing what I'm doing way back to the time of the ancient Persians, although Lord knows what made them get their kit off and start to bathe in this stuff. I must admit, when I first saw it, it looked absolutely disgusting. The feeling of it being warm and clingy was horrible. But now, after five minutes, it still feels absolutely disgusting. Just as well this isn't its only use. You known, I think I can smell someone smoking, which is making me a bit jittery, because... well, because this is oil. I'm lying in a bath of petroleum. Ugh! ROARING Today, we've thought of a few more ways of using oil. It's the ultimate source of concentrated carbon energy. It's more energy-rich than coal, easier to transport, and it's got a million different uses. The use of oil is the pinnacle of our mastery of fire. Fittingly, the first country to benefit from the exploitation of oil was the home of naftalan... ..Azerbaijan. For centuries, this thick, black, oily sludge was dug out of the ground here by hand, on a small-scale basis. But in the middle of the 19th century, demand for oil really took off, and what had been a cottage industry turned into this. Within 20 years, these fields were the site of the first great global oil boom. From across the world, entrepreneurs rushed to Azerbaijan to make their fortunes. Some succeeded so well that their names are almost legendary. The Shell oil company started life here, and the Nobel brothers of Nobel prize fame built their business empire on Azeri oil. This place oozed money! By the early 1900s, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, boasted more millionaires than anywhere else on Earth. But Azerbaijan really owed its sudden wealth to a fluke of geology. In the land of naftalan, oil happens to be exceptionally close to the surface. You can see how close at an unusual location in the south of the country. If you want to appreciate why this country was the site of the first great oil boom, you don't have to look any further than these curious mounds. It's not so much the mounds that's interesting, it's what's bubbling out of them - But not just ordinary mud. Look what happens when I do this. D'oh! GLOOPING The reason it's flammable is that the mud is full of natural gas, which is formed along with the oil. You know, these things are like miniature volcanoes, really... ..except that rather than hot, molten lava spewing out of the top, it's just mud. The thing is, you can dig into them, and you can see what the kind of plumbing is like inside, which is exactly what I'm doing now. GRUNTS Ah, now, look at this, look at this. You can see it in here. Mud is just bubbling up in this cavity, and then there's a little vent pipe that carries it up to the top, where it spews out. BUBBLING There were few places on Earth where it was easier to extract oil and gas than Azerbaijan. PLOPPING But by the start of the 20th century, demand for oil was rocketing, and new sources had to be found. Once again, the Earth's distant past would play a decisive role in meeting our needs. The big question is why a few lucky places ended up with huge oilfields, but others didn't. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the answer to that puzzle has shaped the global geopolitics of our age. It's probably the most powerful way that the Earth has influenced human history. After Azerbaijan faded from prominence, the Middle East became the key oil-producing region in the world. It owes this good fortune to a chain of events that began almost 300 million years ago. Back then, the two areas that would one day form most of the modern Middle East were separate, but they were on the move. Remarkably, as they moved, both areas spent much of the time submerged by shallow seas. So layer upon layer of dead sea creatures built up on the ocean floor. And when, periodically, the seas evaporated, layers of salt were also deposited. As the modern Middle East came together, these layers were buried deep inside the Earth, where the heat and pressure turned the dead sea creatures into oil. But the Earth played one final role in turning this area into the dominant oil-producing region in the world, and to see what it is... ..I've come to an unusual mountain range in Iran. The drifting continents helped form the oil, but in most areas the oil was buried deep in the Earth. Too deep to be exploited. It needed to be brought closer to the surface, which is where salt returns to the story. As a geologist, I've been lucky enough to go to a lot of places and see a lot of rocks, but nothing really prepares you for what you find here. Cos here I am, walking in the scorching desert sun, looking down on a glacier. But that isn't made of ice - it's made of salt. This whole mountainside is covered in salt that's oozed upwards from deep inside the Earth... ..the remains of a long lost ocean.

You know, this is such a surreal landscape. What's hard to take is that virtually everything under my feet is moving. You can see that - look at this here. Look at these cracks that are opening up in the salt as it opens up and then closes again. And then also, here and there... Look, there's a bit. This was carried down the glacier by the salt from somewhere up there. I mean, this is exactly what ice does. Salt is similar to ice because it's soft and plastic, which is why it flows. On the Earth's surface, this means it can slide across the land like a glacier. But even more spectacular is the role it played underground in the formation of oil reserves. As the continents collided to form the Middle East, layers of salt and oil-rich rock strata began to buckle upwards. The salt made it much easier for the rock to bend, until eventually... ..it cracked. Now the oil could flow upwards until it was trapped in a fold in the rock, kept in place by an impermeable layer above. The salt helped the rock slide easily, acting as a kind of lubricant, creating huge folds called anticlines, which were perfect for trapping oil. And where there are oil traps, there are generally oilfields. If you take a look at a map of the world's buried salt deposits, and overlay the major oilfields, it's easy to see why geologists searching for oil go looking for salt. It takes millions of years, and some pretty extraordinary geological events, to create an oil trap that we can exploit. So it's not surprising that only a few countries have oil beneath them. And when they find it, there's almost no limit to what they'll do to get it out of the ground. Nowhere symbolises this determination more than this town in the former Soviet Union. At first glance, this looks like your typical Eastern European town. You've got your standard-issue apartment blocks, and the architecture has got a real industrial feel to it. It was first started in the 1940s. It's got a football team... ..and even a mosque. This place is called Oily Rocks, and over 2,000 people live and work there. If ever there was a monument to our obsession for oil, then this is it. Because what you don't see from the ground is that Oily Rocks was built in the middle of the Caspian Sea. It's 50 kilometres from dry land. Over the years, more than 600 oil wells have been drilled from these platforms. Today, Oily Rocks is still producing oil, but it's past its peak. And that about sums up our relationship with oil more generally. Today, we're burning it far faster than the planet can make it. It would take the Earth three million years to make enough oil for just one year of our consumption. We've reached a turning point in human history. Every major advance in human civilisation has been made possible by our ability to raid the Earth for ever more energy-rich forms of carbon. But our love affair with burning carbon-based fuel is coming to an end. Carbon itself has become the problem. Burning it produces greenhouse gases which are changing our climate. And that means if human civilisation is to continue to advance, we will have to break the link between progress and the burning of carbon. Next time, a very different planetary force... us. We are changing the surface of the planet more than all the forces of nature put together. But are we threatening the Earth's ability to support human civilisation?

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