It’s good to be back. I look forward to sharing many interesting ventures into the natural world with you in this coming year.
We now find ourselves in the depths of winter. Clear skies can provide excellent hiking weather, especially rewarding when snow displays the tracks of those forest dwellers that have to remain active during this season of energy deficiency. The winter stress is the most limiting factor in the lives of most of the animals in our forests. The cold ‘steals the heat’ from the body and the dearth of food resources severely limit replenishment. No wonder animals lose the battle every winter of being able to ‘keep their engines running’ all winter.
Life in our forests operates much like that of the internal combustion engine. Like engines, plants and animals (including we humans) require a fuel and an oxidizer to produce the energy to run on. Plants (autotrophs) use solar energy to fuel its photosynthesis/respiration engine, while animals (heterotrophs) must use the stored energy from plants and other animals (biomass) as their fuel to run their metabolic engines. With the exception of anaerobic life forms, all plants and animals (and combustion engines) use oxygen as it’s oxidizer. Combustion engines also run on biomass, in the form of wood, gasoline, coal, or oil. The fuels of cars or animals, be it gasoline, insects or plant buds, or cheeseburgers, are converted into energy that can be used to turn a wheel or to metabolize life functions. Finally, like an engine, the running of plant or animal engines create and discharge waste byproducts. Not surprisingly, the common byproduct of these processes is carbon dioxide (CO²).
All life is based on energy supply and use. We humans require the energy used by a 60-watt bulb to maintain our metabolic activity – and this is with plenty of warmth and food. Every living organism of our forest has evolved a multitude of techniques, which minimize their energy use and maximize their use of available energy in winter. Hibernation, torpor (basically overnight hibernation), brumation, aestivation, shivering, fluffing fur or feathers; the manners of energy conservation are bountiful enough to fill a book (In fact, two good books on this subject are Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World, and Peter Marchand’s Life in the Cold.)
Energy is the name given to the ability to do work. Wavelengths are motion that carry energy. In the solar spectrum of energy wavelengths, it ranges from the longest, and weakest, radio wavelengths, through audible, or sound waves, infrared, or thermal heat waves, the visible light wave spectrum, and beyond to the shortest, and strongest, gamma and cosmic ray wavelengths. 53% of these incoming solar wavelengths are in the form of infrared energy, or thermal heat. Another 38% of the solar radiation arrives in the form of visible wavelengths. In photosynthesis, plants take parts of this visible light wave spectrum to create available energy (primarily the blues and red wavelengths – the unused green wavelengths are reflected back, making them appear green).
Biomass is stored energy; it is potential work, whether it’s in the form of leaves, wood, coal, oil, apples, corn or sugar. If you are looking for firewood, we know that hickory and oak are superior to tulip tree and pines. We’re talking about hardwoods versus softwoods, but we’re really talking about energy content. Black locust contains about 31 million Btu’s/cord. Beech and dogwood; about 30 million Btu’s/cord, while white oak, walnut, apple, sugar maple and ash contain about 25 or more Btu’s/cord. Of course, this is dry weight we’re discussing. Wet wood has less Btu’s/cord (approximately 2 million Btu’s) because it takes energy to heat the water in the wood to a gaseous state. This latent heat of evaporation takes away from the production of infrared heat (Btu’s). This is the principle behind allowing wood to ‘season’, or dry, for a year before burning.
Let’s take this one more step. In addition to us knowing that dry wood is better than wet wood, we also know that rotten wood is significantly worse in heating capacity than non-rotten wood. In this case, various fungi have consumed much of the stored energy in wood to conduct it’s own metabolism. The net result is that the wood is now left with less energy. Add a few million bacteria, actinomycetes, nematodes and various insects using the stored wood’s energy for their own metabolic consumption, you can understand why there may not be much energy remaining to be converted into thermal energy in our stove.
Prior to Man’s impact, plant photosynthesis and respiration worldwide maintained a balance between the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. Even Early Man’s impact on this balance was marginal, with his energy use being confined to wood burning. This natural balance began to change with the introduction of the steam engine, which extracted chemical energy from fuel (wood or coal – pre-stored solar energy) to heat water so as to make thermal energy (steam), producing mechanical energy, or work. The byproduct of this process released great quantities of CO² into the atmosphere. Since this time, the use of fossil fuel biomass, such as coal, oil, and gas, has contributed massive quantities of CO² as well as particulates and other toxic elements into the atmosphere. The ability of nature to absorb these pollutants is being exceeded, and the balance of nature, through their nutrient cycles, is being jeopardized.
The creation of new energy-creating technologies with non-polluting byproducts to protect the air we breathe will be a major issue of our children’s generation (in addition to clean water and improved food). It would be wise for us to look at how energy is utilized in nature. For example, the energy use of fireflies produces 90% light and only 10% heat. This compares to incandescent bulbs, which produce 10% light and 90% heat.
A whole new science is evolving, known as biomimicry. This science studies nature, along with its processes, in order to create sustainable solutions to Man’s problems. To learn more, I would recommend Janine Benyus’ 1997 book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature", and Michael Pollan’s, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”.