Articles | Volume 16, issue 8
Special issue:
Opinion article
13 Aug 2012
Opinion article |  | 13 Aug 2012

HESS Opinions "Biological catalysis of the hydrological cycle: life's thermodynamic function"

K. Michaelian

Abstract. Darwinian theory depicts life as being overwhelmingly consumed by a fight for survival in a hostile environment. However, from a thermodynamic perspective, life is a dynamic, out of equilibrium process, stabilizing and coevolving in concert with its abiotic environment. The living components of the biosphere on the Earth's surface of greatest biomass, the plants and cyanobacteria, are involved in the transpiration of a vast amount of water. Transpiration is part of the global water cycle, and it is this cycle that distinguishes Earth from its apparently life-barren neighboring planets, Venus and Mars. The dissipation of sunlight into heat by organic molecules in the biosphere, and its coupling to the water cycle (as well as other abiotic processes), is by far the greatest entropy-producing process occurring on Earth. Life, from this perspective, can be viewed as performing an important thermodynamic function, acting as a dynamic catalyst by aiding irreversible abiotic processes such as the water cycle, hurricanes, and ocean and wind currents to produce entropy. The role of animals in this view is that of unwitting but dedicated servants of the plants and cyanobacteria, helping them to grow, and to spread into initially inhospitable areas.

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