Imagine an intricate and infinite web. This web represents the interrelationship among all life forms both with each other as well as the rest of the planet. More than two centuries ago, the scientist originated the concept of both the web of life and climate change. Unfortunately, climate change unequivocally has become rampant and will continue to alter the web of life.
To fully comprehend the extent of climate change it is necessary to understand the web of life and that removing one strand of the web will disrupt the whole. Many species will become more prolific while numerous species will eventually become extinct. Humboldt’s research and original analysis about both the web of life and climate change influenced many naturalists, scientists and philosophers who came after him, including Darwin, John Muir, Thoreau, and others who are less well known. In turn, these followers of Humboldt added to the discussion about the web of life and climate change.
Andrea Wulf is the author of The Invention of Nature—Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Wulf points out that besides influencing some of the most important scientists of his time, Humboldt influenced many others. Wulf provides many examples of this. United States president Thomas Jefferson called Humboldt “one of the greatest ornaments of the age.”
Humboldt also inspired philosophers and poets. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Humboldt was “one of those wonders of the world,” and “no one knew more about nature than Humboldt.” Emerson also said that only Napoleon was more famous than Humboldt. Edgar Allan Poe’s poem Eureka was dedicated to Humboldt and was a response to Humboldt’s book Cosmos. Walt Whitman was also inspired by Humboldt. Many geographical sites and phenomena were named after Humboldt, including the Humboldt current, glaciers, mountains, rivers, lakes, towns, and parks. Several minerals and around 300 plants and 100 animals were named in his honor.
Researchers in different branches of science study climate change, including naturalists. Naturalists are defined as scientists who study natural history, comprised of botany, zoology, and mineralogy. The words naturalist and scientist are used interchangeably throughout this article.
The concept of the web of life is similar to the contemporary concept of ecosystems. The online site of the University of Illinois Extension—Natural Resources, the Environment and Ecosystems provides a good explanation of how ecosystems work:
An ecosystem is made up of all the living animals and plants and the non-living matter in a particular place, like a forest or lake. All the living things in an ecosystem depend on all the other things – living and non-living for continued survival – for food supplies and other needs.
In some ways the actions and reaction that take place within an ecosystem are like a spider web – when one strand is broken, the web starts to unravel. What affects one part of an ecosystem, affects the whole in some way. The idea of the web of life is shown by the interdependence within an ecosystem. Animals and plants depend on a complex system of food for survival. Since the word “ecosystem” was not in use during Humboldt’s lifetime, the term “web of life” is used throughout this article.
In The Invention Of Nature Wulf presents an excellent summary of Humboldt’s life and work. He was in the vanguard of scientists to understand both the web of life and climate change. This shows the brilliant foresight of Humboldt as he was born in 1769 in Prussia. Wulf’s book contains biographical information and provides a summary of Humboldt’s achievements, as well providing accounts of how he influenced the naturalists and scientists who came after him. Humboldt was extremely knowledgeable about many subjects, and he had an insatiable curiosity about how the planet functions.
According to Wulf, he was the most famous scientist of his age. He authored many books and he inspired many naturalists who came after him. Humboldt devoted much of his life to original research and reporting his findings.
Wulf writes eloquently and her book is both enlightening and captivating. Interspersed throughout the book are references to both the web of life and climate change. Many scientists are extremely poetic and eloquent when they write about the concept of the web of life. Therefore, it is necessary and appropriate to quote extensively from their work. Wulf writes about Humboldt and the web of life:
In this great chain of causes and effect, Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today. When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel. … Everything that he had ever observed fell into place. Nature, Humboldt realized, was a web of life and a global force. He was, a colleague later said, the first to understand that everything was interwoven as with ‘a thousand threads.’ This new idea of nature was to change the way people understood the world.
Thus, Humboldt was aware that to know how the planet functions as a whole, the relationships between the various facets must be understood. If one aspect is removed, the entire structure can unravel.
Aaron Sachs adds more information to our knowledge of Humboldt and the web of life. Sachs, PhD, is a history professor at Cornell University and the author of The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. He quotes Humboldt as stating that: “In considering the study of physical phenomena … we find its noblest and most important result to be a knowledge of the chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent on each other.” Just as Humboldt writes artistically, Sachs also waxes poetic in The Humboldt Current stating: “Tug on one strand in the web of life, and the whole structure quivers.”
Humboldt was not the only author of his time period who wrote about the web of life. Johann Wolfgang Goethe was his friend and colleague, and the two men influenced each other. Goethe was also a German scientist and author. He writes eloquently and poetically about how everything is connected. His poetry summarizes the workings of the web of life. In Faust, he writes “How it all lives and moves and weaves into a whole! Each part gives and receives.” Goethe’s writings about the web of life reinforce those of Humboldt.
Ernst Haeckel, who lived from 1834 to 1919, was a German zoologist and another follower of Humboldt. According to Wulf, Haeckel “took Humboldt’s idea of nature as a unified whole made up of complex interrelationships and gave it a name. Haeckel said ecology was the ‘science of the relationships of an organism with its environment.’”
Charles Darwin wrote about both the development of new species and the extinction of old species which certainly impacts the web of life. Darwin is one of the pioneers of evolution. According to Wulf, he paid deep homage to Humboldt. In fact, Darwin wrote “Nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt’s Personal Narrative.” Darwin said that he would not have undertaken his voyage on the Beagle or even conceived of the Origin of Species without Humboldt’s influence. The article entitled “Alexander von Humboldt Pioneered the Science Now Used to Study Climate Change” was published in The Economist. According to the anonymous author of the article, Darwin stated that “I have always admired him, now I worship him.” Darwin’s work reinforces the concept of both the web of life and climate change. Extinctions and the development of new species certainly alter the web. In the past, climate change has led to mass extinctions and new life forms emerged. It is reasonable to assert that the predicted continued change in climate will likewise lead to mass extinctions and thus alter the web of life.
Aaron Sachs reinforces our knowledge of Darwin’s enthusiasm toward Humboldt. Sachs is the author of “Humboldt Legacy and the Restoration of Science” published in World Watch. This article corroborates Wulf’s work on Humboldt. According to Sachs, Darwin wrote “my whole career is due to having read and reread” Humboldt’s personal Narrative to the Equinoctial Regions of America. Sachs also wrote that the only books Darwin brought with him on his voyage on the Beagle were the Bible, Milton, and Humboldt’s Personal Narrative. Sachs states that Darwin often sent his manuscripts to Humboldt to read and make comments. According to Sachs: “Darwin was fascinated with the idea of nature as a ‘web’ – ‘we may all be netted together,’ he mused in the late 1830s – and strong ecological currents run through many of his early writings.”
Henry David Thoreau also held Humboldt in high esteem. Like Humboldt, he was an extremely eloquent author. For example, Thoreau said: “The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” Wulf states:
Thoreau read Humboldt’s most popular books: Cosmos, Views of Nature and Personal Narrative. Books on nature, Thoreau said, were ‘a sort of elixir.’ As he read, he was always noting and scribbling. ‘His reading was done with a pen in his hand,’ one friend remarked. During these years, Humboldt’s name appeared regularly in Thoreau’s journals and notebooks as well as in his published work. Thoreau noted “’Humboldt says’ or ‘Humboldt has written.’ ‘
According to Wulf, Thoreau was so influenced by Cosmos that he rewrote his classic Walden. Thoreau was not only influenced by Humboldt’s concept of the web of life but also his botanical concepts. Professor Sachs in the Humboldt Current states that when classifying New England’s climate zones, Thoreau used Humboldt’s model of plant ecology.
Richard B. Primack, PhD, is the author of Walden Warming –Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. He teaches biology at Boston University and is also the author of several textbooks on conservation biology and one of the editors of the international journal, Biological Conservation. In private correspondence Primack describes Humboldt’s influence on his career, Primack writing:
I have been strongly influenced by Humboldt in three ways: I now realized that the style of careful and often quantitative observations made by Thoreau, and which contributed to my own research, were in fact developed by Humboldt. I have now read the writings of Humboldt and I have learned new ways of observations in his style. And third, I received a Humboldt Research Award from the German government which facilitated my climate change research.
In his book, Primack also describes the web of life. He states that “nature is a web of relationships, in which every change in one plant or animal species has consequences for many other plants or animal species.”
Wulf includes another example of Humoldt’s eloquence about the web of life in “What Thoreau Saw” published in The Atlantic magazine. In this article she quotes Humboldt as saying: “A vast array of observations revealed ‘unity in diversity – each fact and detail of nature threading together into an interconnected whole.”
The naturalist John Muir was another admirer of Humboldt. Muir read Humboldt and was influenced by his work. Wulf stated that when Muir was young said “How intensely I want to be a Humboldt.” Wulf writes about Muir and the web of life:
‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,’ he later wrote in his book My First Summer in the Sierra. Again and again, Muir returned to this idea. As he wrote of ‘a thousand invisible cords’ and ‘innumerable unbreakable cords,’ and of those ‘that cannot be broken,’ he mulled over a concept of nature where everything was connected. Every tree, flower, insect, bird, stream or lake seemed to invite him “to learn something of its history and relationship and the greatest achievements of his first summer in Yosemite, he said, were ‘lessons of unity and inter-relation.’ … Muir marked in his copy of Views of Nature and Cosmos the sections where Humboldt had written about the ‘harmonious co-operation of forces’ and the ‘unity of all the vital forces of nature,’ as well as Humboldt’s famous remark that ‘nature is indeed a reflex of the whole.’
Contemporary scientists also follow in Humboldt’s footsteps when they discuss the web of life. For example, Wulf states that Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is based on Humboldt’s concept of interconnectedness. She also writes that James Lovelock’s Gaia theory says the earth is a living organism and is similar to Humboldt’s web of life. In fact, Humboldt originally thought of calling his last book Gaia. However, he finally titled it Cosmos. Carl Sagan in his own Cosmos, writes Humboldt’s Cosmos is a “broad-gauge popularization of all of science.” Interestingly enough, Sagan’s Cosmos is also a popular book about the entire field of science. Since Sagan was obviously familiar with Humboldt’s Cosmos it is reasonable to speculate that Sagan was influenced by Humboldt. In his own Cosmos, Sagan writes poetically about interconnections. Sagan states: “There are a million threads from the past intertwined to make the ropes and cables of the modern world.”
Just as Humboldt explored the planet, it is necessary to explore his influence on the climate change movement. From 1799-1804 Humboldt traveled around North and South America. As a result of Humboldt’s explorations, he became concerned about climate change. According to Wulf, Humboldt was the first person to describe human-induced climate change. One of the places he visited in 1800 was Lake Valencia, Venezuela. Humboldt’s research on the area around the lake led him to formulate his ideas on climate change. According to Wulf:
Now at Lake Valencia, Humboldt began to understand deforestation in a wider context and projected his local analysis forward to warn that the agricultural techniques of his day could have devastating consequences. The action of humankind across the globe, he warned, could affect future generations. What he saw at Lake Valencia he would see again and again from Lombardy in Italy to southern Peru, and many decades later in Russia. As Humboldt described how humankind was changing the climate, he unwittingly became the father of the environmental movement.
Thus, Humboldt can be considered the father of both the climate change and the environmental movements. Humboldt devoted many years writing about what he had learned on this expedition. He pursued his goal to explore India but was stymied in his objective, and unfortunately was never able to do so. However, in 1829, Humboldt was able to explore Russia. He visited St. Petersburg, Moscow, and traveled through parts of Siberia. He wrote two books about this expedition, and he listed three ways that humans were changing the environment. These were deforestation, irrigation, and the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in industrialist centers. In Saint Petersburg he presented a speech about climate change. Humboldt stated he would like to have data collected showing the effects of deforestation on the climate and that this endeavor would be the first large-scale study to research the impact humanity had on the climate. According to Wulf, “he even prophetically warned about deleterious gas emissions at industrial centers.” Humboldt wrote “the great masses of steam and gas produced by industry” are the causes of climate change.” Andreas Moser adds in “Humboldt Discovered Man-made Climate Change,” that Humboldt “predicted that man-made interventions would lead to irreversible climate change.”
There is still another important way in which Humboldt contributed to climate change research. Humboldt created isotherms, which are the wavy lines on maps pointing to different areas having the same temperature at a given time. Isotherms are still used by climatologists to aid in understanding climate change.
Just as Humboldt was concerned about climate change, so was Muir. A traveling display from the Wisconsin Historical Society referred to Muir’s study of glaciers in California and Alaska in the 1870s. He described how warming climates had changed glaciers over time. According to the exhibit, Muir stated: “How much longer this little glacier will live will, of course, depend upon climate and the changes slowly effected in the form and exposure of its basin.”
George Perkins Marsh was an American diplomat, linguist, and author who lived between 1801 and 1882. While not as well known as the major naturalists, he influenced such people as Gifford Pinchot who was the first Chief of the US Forest Service. Pinchot is the father of the utilitarian conservationists, who believe even though we can use some natural resources, we should not use them up, and we should save some natural resources for future generations. Marsh thought highly of Humboldt. According to Wulf, Marsh maintained an entire section in his personal library of books authored by Humboldt. Marsh himself is the author of Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action.
Leo Hickman is an environmental journalist who has written about Marsh. Hickman writes that Marsh “is considered to be America’s first environmentalist.” Hickman wrote that when Marsh was a U. S. congressman in 1847, he gave a lecture to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont that predicted human-induced climate change. Marsh wrote about the industrial system in a way that was extremely complex and difficult to understand in the present time. However, the following passage shows that Marsh foresaw that industrialism was going to alter the climate in an adverse way:
Man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly effect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air. The same causes modify the electrical condition of the atmosphere and the power of the surface to reflect, absorb and radiate the rays of the sun, and consequently influence the distribution of light and heat, and the force and direction of the winds. Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may effect vegetation. The mean temperature of London is a degree or two higher than that of the surrounding country, and Pallas [Peter Simon Pallas, 1741-1811, was a Prussian zoologist and botanist who explored Russia from 1767-1810] believed that the climate of even so thinly a peopled country as Russia was sensibly modified by similar causes.
According to Hickman, “Some of the terminology he uses is clearly a little archaic to our ears today, but, broadly speaking, his hunch has subsequently proved to be correct. You can see him grappling with concepts that we now know as the urban heat island effect and greenhouse effect.”
R.A. Assel and L.R. Herche are the authors of “Ice-on, ice-off, and ice duration for lakes and rivers with long-term records.” This article states that “Lake ice is a sensitive indicator of climate and climate trends. Ice formation and loss are indices of integrated air temperature over late-fall-to winter, and winter-to-spring periods.” According to Thoreau’s records, the average date of ice-out was April 1. Between 1995 and 2009, the average date of ice-out was March 17. Primack finds that “ice-out occurs three days earlier for each single degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature during the first two months of the year.”
Primack notes that the map of United States plant hardiness zones has been revised by the Department of Agriculture to reflect higher temperature ranges. Many plant hardiness zones in New England have been reclassified so that they are now are equal to the immediate zone to their south reflecting the fact they are now warmer than they had been previously.
Primack also uses phenology to show various responses to the climate change around Walden Pond. According to the online definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary site, phenology is: “a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (such as bird migration or plant flowering.)” Walden Pond is located in Concord, Massachusetts and Thoreau observed and kept records of when plants flowered throughout the area. Thoreau’s records are Primack’s starting point and he returns to Thoreau’s records time and time again.
Primack states that his research found plants are responding to warmer weather in Massachusetts by flowering around 1.7 days earlier for each degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature. Primack is a co-author of an article entitled “Phylogenetic Patterns of Species Loss in Thoreau’s woods Are Driven by Climate Change” in PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.] This article states that: “the mean annual temperature in the Concord area has risen by 2.4 degree Centigrade over the past 100 years and that this temperature change is associated with shifts in flowering time: species are now flowering an average of 7 days earlier than in Thoreau’s time.” In his book, Primack also refers to a study that found that wild bees in the eastern United States fly 2.0 days earlier in the spring for each degree Fahrenheit of warmer temperatures. Primack also stated that the range of honeybee’s pathogens could be enlarged by a warmer wetter environment.
Other scientists have researched the changing patterns of vegetation caused by climate change. For example, Humboldt’s research was used to investigate whether the vegetation on the volcano that Humboldt climbed and wrote about had changed.
The article “Strong Upslope Shifts in Chimborazo’s Vegetation Over Two Centuries Since Humboldt” was published in PNAS. In 1802, Humboldt climbed the Chimborazo volcano located in Ecuador. Scientists restudied the vegetation of the volcano in 2012. They found that the distribution of vegetation zones moved higher up the volcano. Some species moved higher by around 500 meters, which is around 546 yards. David Bressan is the author of “Old Plant Surveys show How Modern Climate Change Is Threatening High Altitude Species” published in Science. Bressan adds further information about the results of climate change on the Chimborazo volcano:
Humboldt mapped the upper limit of any plant life at 15,091 feet, the new research found seedlings at 17,011 feet. The vegetation follows the melting glacier, 200 years ago ice was found at 15,793 feet, now the glacier retreated to 17,290 feet. Some plants from lower altitudes were found almost 1,600 feet higher than during Humboldt’s time.
The same article reported that temperatures rose in the Alps since the nineteenth century by almost 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.] The tree line has moved by almost 330 feet in certain areas. Thus, South American and European findings show the movement of plants to higher ranges on mountains. In other words, climate change has affected the web of life throughout various locations on the planet.
Thus, using the concept of the web of life is a good way to analyze the ecology of the planet and is an appropriate metaphor to analyze the effects of climate change. Climate change is causing some species to increase both their range of their habitat and their population. Other species will become extinct. Humboldt was in the forefront of warning about this phenomenon two centuries ago. His many followers contributed to contemporary scientific thought on the earth’s ecosystems which help us to understand both climate change and the web of life. The web of life is fraying. However, mankind unravels the web of life at its own peril.
Lenore M. Hitchler