There is a river above us | Antonio Donato Nobre | TEDxAmazonia


What do you guys think? For those who attended the memorable talk by Shere Khan at TED, I am a typical example of what he describes, as a body carrying a head, a university professor, right? You might think it was a bad idea putting me after these first two talks to discuss science. I can’t move my body to the beat, and after a scientist who became a philosopher, I have to talk about hard science. It could be a very dry subject yet, I feel honored. Never in my career, and it’s been a long career, have I had the opportunity to start a talk feeling so inspired. Usually, talking about science is like exercising in a dry place. However, I had the pleasure of being invited to come here and talk about water. The words water and dry don’t match. Even better! Talk about water in the Amazon, which is the splendid cradle of fresh life, is what inspired me. That’s why I’m here, although I’m carrying my head over here, like this, I am trying, or will try, to pass on this inspiration. I hope that this story will inspire you and that you will spread it. We know that there is controversy. The Amazon is the lungs of the world, right? Because of its massive power to exchange vital gases, between the forest and the atmosphere. We also hear about the storehouse of biodiversity, although many believe it, few know of it. If go through this riverbank outside you will marvel at the… you can barely see the animals. The Indians say that the forest has more eyes than leaves. This is true and I will try to show you something. But today I’m going to use a different approach, an approach that, inspired by these two initiatives here, a harmonic and a philosophical one, I will try to use an approach that is slightly materialistic, but it attempts to convey that there is also, in nature, an extraordinary philosophy and harmony. There will be no music in my presentation, but I hope that all of you will notice the music of the reality I’m going to show you. I’m going to discuss physiology, not of the lung, but other analogies with human physiology, especially the heart. We start by thinking that water is like blood. The circulation in our body distributes fresh blood, which feeds, nurtures, and supports us, and brings the used blood back to be renewed. In the Amazon, things happen similarly. We’ll start talking about the power of all these processes. This is an image of rain in motion. What you can see there are the years passing at every second. The rains all over the world. What do you see? The equatorial region, in general, and the Amazon specifically, is extremely important for the world climate. It’s a powerful engine. There is an intense evaporation taking place here. If we take a look at this other image that shows the water vapor flux… in black you have dry air, in grey, moist air, the clouds are white. What you see there is an extraordinary resurgence in the Amazon. What phenomenon, if it’s not a desert, what phenomenon makes the water gush from the ground into the atmosphere with such power that we can see from space? What phenomenon is this? It could be a geyser. A geyser is underground water heated by the magma that explodes in the atmosphere, and transfers this water to the atmosphere. We don’t have geysers in the Amazon, unless I am wrong, I don’t know of any. However, we have something that has the same role, with much more elegance, our good old friends, the trees that, like geysers, transfer an enormous amount of water from the ground to the atmosphere. There are 600 billion trees in the Amazon forest, 600 billion geysers. This is done with an extraordinary sophistication, they don’t need the heat of the magma. They use the sunlight to do this process. So, in a day, a typical sunny day in the Amazon, a big tree manages to transfer 1000 L of water by its transpiration. 1000 L! If you take all the water from the Amazon, which is a very large area, and add up all this water that is released by transpiration, which is the sweat of the forest, you arrive at an incredible number, 20 billion metric tons of water. You know, this is in a day. Do you know how much that is? The Amazon River, the largest river on Earth, one fifth of all the fresh water that leaves the continents of the whole world ends up in the oceans, it dumps 17 billion tons of water a day in the Atlantic Ocean. This river of vapor that comes from the forest and goes to the atmosphere, is greater than the Amazon River. Just to give you an idea, if we could take a gigantic kettle, one that you plugged into a power socket, an electric one, and put the 20 billion metric tons of water in it, how much power would you need to evaporate this water? Any idea? A really big kettle, a gigantic kettle. 50 thousand Itaipus. For those who don’t know it, Itaipu is still the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. It’s something Brazil is very proud of because it provides more than 30% of the power consumed in Brazil. And the Amazon is here, doing it for free. It’s alive and an extremely powerful plant, providing environmental services. Related to this subject, we are going to talk about what I call the “Paradox of Chance”, which is curious. If you look at the world map, it’s easy to see this. You will see that in the equatorial zone, you have the forests, and the deserts are organized on 30º north latitude, on 30º south latitude, aligned. Look over there, in the southern hemisphere, the Atacama, Namibia Kalahari in Africa, the Australian desert, in the northern hemisphere, the Sahara, Sonoma, etc. There is an exception, and it’s curious, It’s the quadrangle that ranges from Cuiabá to Buenos Aires, from São Paulo to the Andes. This quadrangle was supposed to be a desert. It’s on the line of deserts. Why isn’t it? That’s why I call it the “Paradox of Chance”. What do we have in South America that is different? If we can use the analogy of the blood circulating in our bodies, with the water circulating in the landscape, we see that the rivers are veins. They drain the landscape, they drain the tissue of nature. Where are the arteries? Any guess? What takes… how does the water irrigate nature’s tissues and bring everything back through the rivers? There is a new type of river, which originates in the blue sea, which flows through the green ocean, it not only flows, but it is also pumped by the green ocean, and falls on our land. All our economy, that quadrangle, 70% of the GDP in South America comes from that area, and depends on this river. This river flows invisible above us… we are floating here on this floating hotel, on one of the largest rivers on Earth, which is the Black River. It’s a bit dry and rough, but we are floating here, and above us there is this invisible river passing. This river has a pulse. Here it is. That’s why we also talk about the heart. You can see the season of the year there… There is the rainy season. In the Amazon, we used to have two seasons, the humid season and an even more humid one. Now we have a dry season. You can see it covering that region which, otherwise, would be a desert. It’s not. We, scientists… you see that I have a problem here to take my head from one side to the other. Scientists study how it works, why, etc. and these studies are generating a series of discoveries which are absolutely fabulous to raise our awareness of the wealth, the complexity, and the wonder that we have, of the symphony we have in this process. One of them is how the rain is formed. Above the Amazon, there is clean air, as there is above the ocean. The blue sea has clean air and forms few clouds, it almost doesn’t rain. The green ocean has the same clean air, but forms a lot of rain. What is happening here that is different? The forest emits smells, and these smells are condensation nuclei that form drops in the atmosphere. Then clouds are formed and there is torrential rain. The watering can of the Garden of Eden. This relation between a living thing, which is the forest, and a non-living thing, which is the atmosphere, is ingenious in the Amazon, because the forest provides water and seeds, and the atmosphere forms the rain and gives them back, guaranteeing the forest’s survival. There are other factors as well. We’ve talked a little about the heart, let’s now talk about another function, that is the liver! When humid air, with high humidity and radiation are combined with this organic material, which I call “exogenous vitamin C”, generous vitamin C is in the form of gas, plants release antioxidants that react with pollutants. You can rest assured that you are breathing the purest air on Earth, here in the Amazon because the plants take care of this characteristic as well. This benefits the way plants work, another ingenious cycle. Speaking of fractals, and their relation with the way we work, we can establish other comparisons. As in the upper airways of the lung, the air in the Amazon is free of excess dust. The dust in the air that we breathe is cleaned by the airways. This keeps the excess dust from harming the rainfall. When there are fires in the Amazon, the smoke stops the rain, it stops raining, the forest dries up and catches fire. There is another fractal analogy. Like the veins and arteries, the rain water is a feedback. It returns to the atmosphere. Like endocrinal glands and hormones, there are those gases which I told you about before that are formed and released into the atmosphere, like hormones, that help in the formation of rain. Like the liver and kidneys, as I’ve said, the cleaning of the air. And, at last, like the heart, pumping water from outside, from the sea, into the forest. We call it the “biotic moisture pump,” a new theory that is explained in a very simple way. If there is a desert in the continent and a nearby sea, evaporation is greater in the sea, and it sucks the air above the desert. The desert is trapped in this condition, it will always be dry. If you have the opposite situation, a forest, the evaporation, as we showed, is much greater, because of the trees, it inverts the relationship. The air above the sea is sucked in and humidity is imported. This is a satellite photo taken one month ago. That’s Manaus down there, we’re down there, it shows this process. It is not a little river, one of those that flow into a canal. It is a mighty river that irrigates South America, among other things. This image shows those paths, all the hurricanes that have been recorded. You can see that in the red square, there hardly are any hurricanes. This is not by chance. This pump that sucks the moisture into the continent, also speeds up the air above the sea and this prevents hurricane formation. To close this part and summing up, I’d like to talk about something different. I have several colleagues who worked in the development of these theories. They think, and so do I, that we can save planet Earth. I’m not talking only about the Amazon. The Amazon teaches us a lesson of how pristine nature works. We didn’t understand these processes before because the rest of the world is messed up. Here, we can understand it. These colleagues propose that we can, yes, we can, save other areas, even deserts. If we can establish forests in these other areas, we can revert climate change, including global warming I have a dear colleague in India named Suprabha Seshan, who has a motto, “Gardening back the biosphere”, “Reajardinando a biosfera”, in Portuguese. She does wonderful work rebuilding ecosystems, we need to do this. Having closed this quick introduction, we see the reality that we have out here of drought, this climate change, things that we already knew. I’d like to tell you a short story. Once, about four years ago, I attended the presentation of a text by Davi Copenaua, a wise representative of the Ianomami people that went more or less this: Doesn’t the white man know that if he destroys the forest the rain will end? And that if the rain ends, there will be no drinking water or food? I heard that and my eyes welled up because, oh, my… I’ve been studying this for 20 years, with a super computer, tens, thousands of scientist, and we are starting to reach this conclusion that he already knows! A critical point is that the Ianomami have never deforested. How could they know the rain would end? That bugged me and I was befuddled. How could he know that? Some months later, I met him at another event and said: “Davi, how did you know that destroying the forest the rain ends? He replied: “The forest spirit told us.” For me, this was a “game changer,” a radical change. I said: “Gosh, why am I doing all this science, to reach a conclusion that he already knows?” Then something absolutely critical hit me. It is that… Seeing is believing. “Out of sight, out of heart.” This is a need that who came before me pointed out that we need to see things… We, I mean, western society that is becoming global, civilized, we need to see, if we don’t see, we don’t register the information. We live in ignorance. Thus, I make this proposal: let’s… of course, the astronomers would spend on this let’s turn the Hubble upside down. And let’s make the Hubble look down here, rather than to the end of the universe, the wonderful end of the universe. Now, we have a practical reality, we live in an unknown cosmos, we’re ignorant, we’re trampling on this wonderful cosmos that shelters and houses us. Talk to any astrophysicist, the Earth is a statistical improbability. The stability and comfort that we enjoy with the droughts of the Black River, all the heat and cold and all, there is nothing like it in the universe, that we know of. Then, let’s turn the Hubble down here and look at the Earth. Let’s start with the Amazon! Let’s dive, let’s reach out the reality we live in daily, and look at it, since that’s what we need, Davi Copenaua doesn’t need this. He already has something that I think I missed. I was educated by television. I think that I missed this, an ancestral record, a valuation of that which I don’t know, which I haven’t seen. He is no doubting Thomas. He believes with veneration and reverence, in that which the ancestors and the spirits taught them. As we can’t, let’s look into the forest. Even with the Hubble up there, looking into the sky… This is a bird’s-eye view. Even when this happens, we also see something that we don’t know. The Spanish called it the green inferno. If you leave here, go into the bushes, and get lost, and by any chance you head west, it’s 550 miles to Colombia, and another 600 miles to somewhere else, then you can figure out why they called it the green inferno. But go and look at what is in there. It is a live carpet. Each color there is a tree species. Each tree, each tree top, has even 10,000 species of insects in it, let alone the millions of species of fungi, bacteria, and all. All invisible. All an even stranger cosmos to us than the galaxies billions of light years away from the Earth that the Hubble brings to our newspapers everyday. I close my talk here. I have a few seconds left, showing this wonderful being. When we see the Morpho butterfly in the forest, we feel like someone left the door to paradise open and that this creature escaped from there, Because it’s so beautiful. However, I cannot close without showing a tech side, we are tech arrogant. We deprive nature of its technology. A robotic hand is technological, mine is biological, and we don’t think about it anymore. Let’s then look at the Morpho butterfly, an example of an invisible technological competence of life. It is at the very heart of our possibility of surviving on the planet. Let’s zoom in on it. Again, there is the Hubble. Let’s get into the butterfly’s wings, the scholars have tried to explain: “Why is it blue?” Let’s zoom in on it. What you see is that the architecture of the invisible humiliates the best architects in the world. All this on a tiny scale. Besides the beauty and functioning, there is another side to it. All in nature that is organized in extraordinary structures has a function. This function, of the Morpho butterfly, it is not blue, it does not have blue pigments. It has photonic crystals on the surface, according to the person who studied it, extremely sophisticated crystals. Our technology had nothing like that at the time. Hitachi has now made a monitor that uses this technology, and it is used in optical fibers to transmit… Janine Banes, who’s been here several times, talks about it, biomimetics. My time is up. Then, I’ll wrap up with what is at the base of this capacity, of this competence of biodiversity, of producing all these wonderful services. The living cell. It is a structure with a few microns, which is an internal wonder, there are TED talks about it, I won’t drag on, but each person in this room, including myself, has 100 trillion of this micromachine in his body, so that you can enjoy this well-being. Imagine what is out there in the Amazon forest. 100 trillion, this is greater than the number of stars in the sky. We are not aware of it. Thank you so much.

19 thoughts on “There is a river above us | Antonio Donato Nobre | TEDxAmazonia

  1. Excelente palestra, com grandes reflexões.
    Parabéns Professor Antônio Donato.

  2. Muito boa palestra, Antonio Nobre! Gostaria de saber sua opiniao sobre o projeto HAARP.

  3. Arvorando-me a complementar as magníficas palavras do palestrante, " e também um rio abaixo de nós"(vide as reservas de águas doce sob os rios da Amazônia). Quem sabe este vídeo não fará muitos pensarem/agirem diferente do "normal", e buscarem preservar o que ainda resta dessa região que tanto deu aos homens e tanto ainda tem a dar em todos sentidos possíveis e imagináveis e inimagináveis também.

  4. "Se não chover, eles não vão ter o que comer ou o que beber!"

    Fsle isso para Israel!

  5. Viva ! recebo com entusiasmo essas novas abordagens de pessoas do mundo científico, em estudos que incluem a beleza, a criatividade e a poesia. O Novo milênio, integrando hemisférios cerebrais e outras linguagens.

  6. Espetacular. Conhecimento científico que agrega e deverá servir como base para os projeto de ocupação em toda a Amazônia. Me orgulho desse professor e toda a sua equipe. Um abraço!

  7. Parabéns aos q votaram no bolsonaro bebam dinheiro agr quando cortar a última árvore

  8. O sudeste perdeu parte de seu manto verde e cada vez mais o clima seco se estabelecerá naquela região e fará com que despeje energia no atlântico sul o que poderá provocar aumento de furacões na região.

  9. Qual o nome da cientista indiana que ele cita? Que trabalha com "gardening back the biosphere"?

  10. Ai vem um presidente em 2019 e diz que pode desmatar a amazônia. Se vc estiver lendo esse comentário em 2050, saiba que algumas pessoas tentaram salvar a Amazônia, o que você vê agora é o reflexo disso tudo, espero que tenhamos conseguido.

  11. OS ÍNDIOS EM TODOS OS LUGARES QUE EXISTEM OU EXISTIRAM SEMPRE REVENCIARAM AS ÁRVORES COMO SERES SAGRADOS DA VIDA E QUE TEM UM ESPÍRITO OCULTO EM SI. !

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