One of the exciting things we see in the natural world is how living things solve problems produced by the environment. An excellent example is the carrion cactus that lives in hot and dry deserts of Africa.
Getting enough water is a challenge for plants that live in places where rainfall is very sparse. Those plants employ ingenious ways of storing water and reducing transpiration losses by having needles instead of leaves. What we might not have thought about is the problem of pollination in the desert environment. There aren’t enough plants to support a bee population, and pollinators are few and far between.
One cactus called the carrion cactus (Stapelia gigantea) has solved the pollination issue in an unusual way. When the cactus flowers are ready to be pollinated, they give off a foul smell that reeks of dead and rotting flesh. The smell of carrion attracts flies. As they scramble over the flowers trying to find the dead organism, they get pollen on their bodies and pollinate the cactus flowers.
God has created creatures that clean up dead and decaying organic matter. We have discussed the design roles of dung beetles, vultures, and worms in cleaning up the environment. In the carrion cactus, we see a plant that fools insects into thinking there is something to clean up as a way to accomplish pollination. This impressive trick allows a plant to thrive in the dry and hostile environment of the desert.
We saw the carrion cactus at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They feature amazing displays of many kinds of plants, including desert plants and carnivorous plants, that show God’s creativity.
Have you ever been in a desert for an extended time? Have you ever taken the sand of a desert and looked at it under a microscope? Have you visited the Great Salt Lake or the Dead Sea? Do you feel that deserts are a wasteland? Science has come to understand something about deserts, oceans, and life that shows wisdom and planning that is beyond our wildest dreams.
We now know that deserts, in general, are dried up lakes. The vast Death Valley desert in the United States (pictured) was a lake at one time. So was the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is now called “the driest place on Earth.” The African Sahara was once the largest lake on Earth called the Mega Chad. Fossil hunting in these deserts reveals the remains of fish and plankton called diatomite. Diatomite is the skeletal remains of microscopic forms of life called diatoms. The skeletons are composed of silicon dioxide, which is a very durable substance and is highly porous and lightweight. These factors make it ideal for the wind to carry. Diatomite also contains phosphorous, which is essential for life to exist. Every living cell needs water and phosphorous, which is the second most abundant mineral in our bodies.
To have rain on the Earth requires water vapor, cool temperatures, and condensation nuclei on which the water can condense. When bodies of water become deserts, the dust contains phosphorus. Wind currents of our planet take the dust from deserts which once were lakes and carry it vast distances. Dust particles become the nuclei for condensation of raindrops that carry water and nutrients to the ground. The deserts of the Sahara maintain life in the Amazon basin. Lightning in the storms produces nitrogen to add to the nutrients. This pattern is repeated in every life-filled system on Earth. The Great Plains of the United States are sustained by the dust and minerals of the Mojave Desert, an old inland sea.
One of the struggles we all have is understanding why God allows disastrous events that cause massive destruction and suffering to humans. Atheists use this question as a club against faith, and it is perhaps their best weapon. The list of events that harm humans is huge – earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, landslides, fires, floods, droughts, etc. At this time of the year, hurricanes are at the front of our awareness. Does God cause natural disasters to punish people?
If you have just seen a natural event take place that destroyed your home and killed a loved one, no rational explanation is going to be of any help. Our hearts go out to those of you who are trying to make sense of what seems to be a senseless disaster that has hurt them in ways that no one else can understand. We don’t want anyone to think that we have all the answers. If somehow we can remove ourselves from our own emotions, here are three things we need to understanding:
1) God does not cause disasters. The notion that God brings catastrophes upon people He doesn’t like, or people who violate His laws or commands is inconsistent with the nature of God. James 1:13 tells us clearly that God doesn’t tempt us in any way. The passage specifically deals with moral temptation, but verse 17 goes on to say that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” God brings good things. Jealousy or vindictiveness is not a part of His nature.
2) Human stupidity in the face of natural processes is a significant cause of calamity. Hurricanes are a classic example of this. The Earth has zones of climate that are made functional by natural processes which create climate zones. The Hadley Cell explains these zones, with different zones creating tropical rainforests and deserts. Those zones are balanced by natural processes such as hurricanes that carry water into what would otherwise be a desert. Thirty-degree latitudes north and south would be deserts if it were not for hurricanes that bring massive amounts of water to recharge water supplies. In the United States, northern Florida and southern Georgia would be deserts with no water were it not for hurricanes. Humans ignoring this system and building in areas known to be vulnerable to hurricanes while removing natural barriers such as mangroves causes much of the suffering and death.
3) Human mismanagement of God’s creation due to greed and ignorance is a major cause of human suffering. Genesis 2:15 tells us that God gave humans the assignment to take care of “the garden, to dress it and keep it.” We are the caretakers of what God has created, but selfishness and greed have caused significant suffering and destruction. We all know that polluting the air, rivers, lakes, and now the ocean has led to cancer and now appears to be affecting Earth’s climate. We all understand that exploitative agriculture has led to fires, erosion, dust storms, and insect swarms. Scientific journals are full of studies showing how human mismanagement of what God has given us is leading and has led to disaster.
The saguaro (pronounced suh-wah-roh) cactus is found only in the Sonoran Desert areas of southern Arizona, northern Mexico, and a small area of southeast California. We call them saguaro desert old-timers for a good reason. Saguaros grow very slowly as a single stem for perhaps 75 years before developing arms. Plants with five arms may be 200 years old.
Saguaro flowers bloom at night from April to June. They close by noon the next day, never to open again. Saguaro flowers can only be fertilized by cross-pollination so there must be a creature to carry pollen from one plant to another. Because the flowers bloom at night, bats are the pollinators. They drink the nectar and transfer pollen from plant to plant.
A successfully pollinated flower will produce a green, oval-shaped fruit with bright red pulp. Many desert creatures eat the fruit and aid the saguaros by spreading their seeds. Only a small percentage of the seeds will ever germinate, but that’s okay because each flower produces as many as 4000 seeds.
Not only do the saguaros have a symbiotic relationship with the bats which consume their nectar and the many creatures who consume its fruit, but it also provides shelter for many desert animals. Saguaros become apartment houses for birds, lizards, desert rodents, and reptiles, as well as a whole entourage of insects.
Saguaros are remarkably well-designed for life in a dry climate. The outside of the plant has pleats like an accordion. The pleats allow expansion for storing large quantities of water when the rains come. As with other cacti, the saguaro has needles rather than leaves to reduce the loss of moisture by transpiration.
Every time natural disaster strikes anywhere in the world, people tend to blame God for what happened. The current examples are the hurricane in the panhandle of Florida, and the catastrophic earthquake in Indonesia. What atheists and skeptics fail to realize about natural disasters is that the vast majority of catastrophes are due to human ignorance and mismanagement. Both of the current crises demonstrate that point.
The major loss of life and devastation in Indonesia is in an area that was built on a restored landfill. Gravel, sand, and dirt were brought in to make living space for what were mostly poor workers and laborers. Engineers have warned for a very long time that the land under the highly populated area was unstable, and the earthquake was enough to cause that land to move in a significant way. You could call this a human-designed natural disaster.
In America, we have the same situation in New Orleans and Los Angeles. New Orleans is built on an area that is soft and prone to flooding, and part of the city is even below sea level. Los Angeles is built in an earthquake active area riddled with faults. It isn’t a question of whether a severe earthquake will happen in the Los Angeles area, it is just a question of when. There will be a catastrophe when that happens, and God will be blamed for causing it.
Hurricane Michael is a demonstration of another human-caused natural disaster. One of the designs of our planet is the method which brings water to areas that would otherwise be a desert. At the equator, the direct sunlight evaporates ocean water which falls as rain causing tropical rain forests. The remaining dry air moves north or south in what is called the “Hadley Cells.” When that dry air cools and returns Earth’s surface at 30 degrees latitude, it produces desert conditions. Most of the world’s great deserts are found at 30 degrees north or south latitude–the Sahara, the Australian Outback, the Mohave, etc.
In the southeastern United States, 30 degrees north latitude runs through northern Florida. That area would be a desert were it not for hurricanes. The heating of the ocean in the summer is sufficient to lift massive amounts of water which are then carried to the land restoring lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers. Without that large water supply system, that area would be a desert like the Sahara. The land area around the Gulf of Mexico in its pristine state had barrier beaches and mangrove forests that moderated the wind and storm surge. When I was a child living in Alabama, we looked forward to “hurricane parties” when we would “button down” and enjoy not having to work. The storm’s damage was limited, and even the storm surge was never a problem. That was 80 years ago.
Since that time, we have modified the shoreline stripping the barrier beaches of vegetation, and building houses where they are easily destroyed by water or wind. Even the vast mangrove swamps that were a buffer to storms have been removed, and channels have been built lined with aluminum houses, golf courses, and boat facilities. It was an invitation for a natural disaster.
One of the things that scientists have studied in some detail is food chains. We now understand that for life to proliferate in harsh environments, it sometimes takes a highly specialized animal that is unique to that environment to fill the niche of food that other animals need. The deserts of northwest China, southern Mongolia, northern Africa, and the Arabian peninsula are good examples of harsh environments. The creature at the foundation of the food chain for higher forms of life is the jerboa by design.
This animal is about three inches (7.6 cm) long but has a tail that is over six inches (15 cm) and is flared at its end. The body is mouse-like, but the ears are a third longer than its head. The snout is like a pig’s, and its back legs look like a miniature model of a kangaroo. The back feet are elongated and very powerful and are covered with tufts of stiff hair. The front legs are very short, just barely able to reach its mouth.
The jerboa uses all of its unusual characteristics in a way that allows it to survive in an environment where most animals couldn’t last a day. The tufts on the feet enable it to walk on sand. The large ears are sensitive to very low volume sounds to hear predators approaching. The tail is a prop for standing still, and it gives stability when the animal jumps. It’s like a rudder in the air. When chased by a predator, the jerboa will change directions quickly and often to avoid capture. It can hop at up to 15 miles (24 km) per hour.
The jerboa ‘s diet is almost entirely insects, and it plays a major role in controlling the insect populations. The jerboa is a primary food source for birds of prey. The jerboa’s unique features enable it to survive even though it has many predators.
Our hearts go out to everyone who has been affected by the recent storms in Texas and Louisiana. Our family has members who were flooded and have sustained a terrible loss. The total damage to innocent humans is so massive it is hard to comprehend. Please do not interpret this discussion as being callous, unfeeling, or minimizing the loss that so many have suffered. However, we need to consider the cause of hurricanes and God’s design for life on Earth.
When something like this happens, we receive communications either blaming God or wanting to know why God has allowed it to happen. We would not pretend to have all the answers to the questions that a disaster like this raises. However, this is not a vindictive act of God or retaliation for some human sin. It is a natural product of the design of our planet.
The design is a very good. Spreading water around the Earth in such a way that all latitudes and longitudes have enough water for humans to survive is a difficult challenge. When the Sun is directly overhead at the Equator, it generates heat energy on the surface of the Earth at that locale. The heated air rises and cools. Moisture condenses, and precipitation occurs.
The now dry air moves north and south away from the tropical rain forests. Eventually, it falls back to the Earth at about 30 degrees latitude north and south of the equator. That means there will be a desert at 30 degrees latitude. If you look at a globe, you will see that most of Earth’s deserts are at 30 degrees latitude. This effect is called “The Hadley Cell” and is well understood.
In the United States, 30 degrees north runs through Houston, the gulf coast, and northern Florida. Those areas would be deserts except for hurricanes and God’s design. Low-pressure cells generate over the South Atlantic and move toward the Gulf of Mexico. If these cells pick up enough water due to extra heat, a hurricane can result. Hurricanes bring large amounts of water to what would otherwise be parched, dry areas. When these areas go a long time with no significant water-bearing storms, drought is the result.
When I was a child in the middle of the twentieth century, hurricanes were a time for celebration. Hurricane parties were the rage, and people knew how to “batten down” for the “big blow.” The barrier islands were covered with mangroves which would break up the storm surge. Recharging the aquifers in the area was a good thing for everyone.
Since those days, people have cut down the mangroves and built resorts and beach houses on those barrier islands. Without the mangroves, the storm surges are massive. People have built huge housing developments on land poorly protected from the sea. Even farther inland, massive numbers of people have been put in harm’s way by the changes.
Hurricanes are not an evil, vindictive act of God. In this very incomplete and sketchy review of the cause of storm damage along the coast, we want to say that these storms have a positive effect. They are part of a system designed to make an area that otherwise would be a desert into a good place to live.
When my oldest daughter married and moved to West Texas, I worried about how a young lady born and raised in Indiana would fare in an area that was essentially a desert. Leaving a state full of lakes, streams, trees, and fruit and vegetable crops for a world of cactus and yucca seemed to be quite an adjustment. When my daughter and her husband showed us a lot they were buying high on a butte, I worried even more. They were miles from town and surrounded by nothing but thorn-covered plants, mesquite trees, and bare rock and dirt.
Our first visit after they built their new house was during a time when they had been blessed with a great deal of rain. I was amazed at the transformation that had taken place in the landscape. Everything was green, and most things were blooming. Even the obnoxious cactus I always managed to get scratched by was covered with beautiful flowers.
An advertisement currently running on television for a lotion product says that it contains ingredients derived from the “Resurrection Plant.” After doing some research on resurrection plants, I found that several plants are called by that name. The thing they all have in common is that they can become desiccated (almost completely dried out) and then return to life when water is applied. Perhaps the best known is Selaginella lepidophylla which is sold as a novelty. The animation shows one of these plants going from dry to revived over a three-hour period. This resurrection plant is native to the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and western Texas. It is known by various other names including “rose of Jericho.” It’s also called “false rose of Jericho” because there is another species of resurrection plant called “rose of Jericho” that grows in the deserts of Asia and Africa.