Technology: Ecological Engineering

“The prevalence of anoxic environments rich in organic material, combined with the presence of nitrated compounds has led to an astonishing variety of underground organisms which live in the absence of oxygen and ‘breathe’ nitrate. Likewise, the scarcity of carbon in the environment has forced plants to economize on its use. Thus, all our efforts to return carbon to the biosphere will encourage the native life to proliferate. Conversely, the huge quantities of nitrate in the soil will be heaven to human farmers.”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “The Early Years”

Ecological Engineering is a fourth-tier exploration technology that relies on Centauri Ecology and Gene Splicing.  In the game, it lifts the mineral cap (meaning non-resource tiles can now yield greater than two minerals) and enables terraformer units to use the advanced terraforming options that were unlocked early by the Weather Paradigm.  Since minerals are the most straightforward way for a player to build military units and base facilities, being able to suddenly accrue many more per turn is a massive improvement.

The quote that accompanies this massive industrial advance is a long discourse on Planet’s ecology.  By now, the player’s seen a couple quotes that refer to the anomalously large quantities of organic nitrates in the biosphere.  But here we see Lady Deirdre talking about how this has affected the vast, complex subterranean ecosystem on Planet.  Whatever they have that fits the earthworm niche we’d recognize on Earth is certainly something pretty alien.

In context, this implies that understanding this subterranean ecology is necessary to shape the environment in any effective, lasting way.  All the minerals are underground after all.  So it seems to be necessary to figure out how to keep these crazy nitrate breathers out of the mineshafts and away from the machinery.

I believe this is also the first time that Deirdre speaks of the needs of the native ecology instead of focusing entirely on the needs of Earth plants and animals.  Notably, in doing so, she mentions a potential route toward symbiosis.  Since Earth plants have evolved to operate in a carbon-rich, nitrate-scarce environment and the native plants evolved to operate in a carbon-scarce, nitrate-rich environment, together they form a virtuous cycle.  The Earth plants grow and flourish among all the easy-to-get nitrates.  Then they die and their spare carbon causes an explosion of native plant life, which then provides the additional fertilizer for more Earth plants.

The idea that the two ecologies can be blended together harmoniously instead of necessarily competing is a core tenet of the Gaian religion.  They believed that before they even made Planetfall.  But only now, well into the tech tree, are they discovering the mechanism by which they might accomplish that.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that this quote also goes a long way toward explaining the curious lack of fossil fuels on Planet.  Hydrocarbons necessarily include a lot of spare carbon.  It’s in the name for a reason.  So, if the entire biosphere is light on carbon for some reason, then it would make sense that there would be lots of little creatures roaming about on the search for the scarce material and growing fat on any reserves.  Fast forward hundreds of millions of years and it makes perfect sense that all the oil would already be sucked out of the crust.

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One thought on “Technology: Ecological Engineering

  1. northstar1989Blake

    I’m not sure you really understand how an ecosystem works (Reynolds doesn’t either, though), or how fossil fuels form…

    First of all, Earth plants would have great *difficulty* growing on planet due to the scarcity of carbon in the atmosphere- the very fact that they evolved on a planet where it is less scarce would mean they would struggle with growing on a planet where it is even harder to come by…

    Despite public perception due to the hot-button topic of Global Warming, Carbon *is* actually quite scarce in our own atmosphere, at only 400 parts per million (and originally only 270 PPM before modern industrial activity increased it so drastically)… However that is partly due to large amounts of it being locked up in the soil, plants, and underground fossil fuels… Plants grow fastest at CO2 concentrations of around 1200-1400 PPM (these levels can more than double their growth-rate), and stop growing entirely once CO2 levels fall much below 200 PPM. Thus it’s actually kind of hard to believe that Chiron could actually have much less CO2 in its atmosphere than Earth- and if it did, Earth plants would not be capable of growing there at all…

    Returning the Carbon found in fossil fuels to our biosphere, from whence it came long ago, alters the current climate system so drastically precisely because there is very little in the atmosphere currently… It actually *helps* plants to grow, much like releasing CO2 would on Chiron, but it also affects global temperatures and precipitation patterns (leading to a hotter, drier Earth). Earth plants are heavily adapted to try and concentrate Carbon from its very low concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere, *not* to grow in a carbon-rich environment as you claim…

    I mention all this because I’ve always found Reynold’s attempts at ecology to be his most glaring weakness. In describing a carbon-scarce, nitrogen-rich planet he is basically describing Earth (until very recently only 0.027% CO2, but more than 70% Nitrogen in our atmosphere…) minus the fact that much of this Nitrogen is in the form of Nitrate on Chiron- which is an important distinction because plants can’t actually *use* atmospheric Nitrogen- on Earth they need to rely on underground bacteria to “fix” it into Nitrate first…

    It is never explained *why* Chrion has so much Nitrate (the underground organisms *breathe* it, meaning they *consume* it, due to the apparent scarcity of diatomic Oxygen on Planet… Do note that Nitrate contains Oxygen, more Oxygen than Nitrogen in fact- the chemical formula for Nitrate is NO3) although my guess is that the Fungus for some reason produces large amounts of it- perhaps “intentionally” so (given its quasi-sentient nature) in order to help plant growth throughout the rest of the biosphere…

    It’s also never explained why atmospheric Carbon is so scarce on Chiron (it’s apparently rich underground- that’s what “organic” materials are in biology/chemistry, by definition “organic” materials are those which contain Carbon…) although my guess is that the vast majority of it is locked up in the Xenofungus…

    The Interludes, and later “Planetfall” extension of the official backstory released before the game’s expansion make it quite clear the Xenofungus is in most cases extremely thick and several *meters* tall. Such a large amount of biomass as the land and sea-based Xenofungus add up to in aggregate would necessarily lock up huge amounts of Carbon in solid form, leaving too little behind for the formation of fossil fuels (which would not be “sucked out of the crust” as you say- they never would have *formed in the first place*. Fossil fuels form from dense deposits of dead plant-life that become buried under layers of mud, which eventually compacts into sedimentary rock leaving it buried underground. Once tectonic movements and the deposition of even larger amounts of rock on top of the plant matter buries it deep enough underground, it eventually over millions of years transforms into fossil fuels as we know them today…) as remaining life-forms would have scavenged what little was left for their own purposes…

    Finally, it raises an interesting question how exactly the colonists *returning* Carbon to the biosphere would lead to their having a net benefit for the planet. *Returning* it would imply that the colonists had removed it from the biosphere in the first place, and thus at best they could only be undoing some of the damage they had done by making Carbon even *more* scarce (and even then, not all of it- as human bodies are in fact made partly of Carbon, and that could not be returned until the colonists died…) It would seem at best that it would be a means of moderating/reducing ecological damage. Unless one assumes that Reynolds doesn’t really understand the term “biosphere”. A “biosphere” is the atmosphere, oceans, soils, and *all* the living organisms on a planet- thus there would be no way to add Carbon into it on a planet without fossil fuel deposits. However if Reynolds incorrectly used the term to mean just the atmosphere and dissolved gasses in the oceans, then maybe the colonists are actually *helping* other native life to proliferate any time they burn back the fungus… (after all, the Fungus would necessarily contain large quantities of Carbon even if it were adapted to economize on its use similar to the plant-life…)

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