Geohacking may well be the science of the 21st century — with ambitious schemes like turning the Sahara Desert into a forest being bandied about. But we've actually been terraforming our own planet for thousands of years — and some of the most low-tech geohacking methods have had the most profound effects on the planet.
Here are some of the most low-tech geohacking innovations that completely changed the shape of the world.
Top image: Flower farms seen from space, via NASA
The American West used to be synonymous with freedom and wildness. Even after the millions of buffalo that trouped in herds across the plains had been slaughtered and the settlers and the heavy-handed United States government moved in, long cattle runs and lonely nights by the fireside in unconquered territory were the stuff of legend.
The land Way Out West couldn't be farmed. It could just be moved across, and both people and animals drifted. What changed the American West more than nearly anything else? It wasn't the railroads. They could cross it, but they couldn't manage it. It wasn't guns, despite all those shoot-outs you've seen in Westerns. It was the invention of barbed wire. The West was great pasture land, but it was huge, and in order for large farms to settle in, there had to be a good way to control all that cattle.
Cattle could be managed by personnel, of course, but people could only do so much. Cattle could, and had, been fenced in. In an endless prairie, however, there was nowhere to get enough wood to make those fences. People had put up wire fences, but cattle simple stepped through them or charged them down. They'd even put up barbs on the wire. Over time, though, cows learned to nudge them aside. In the 1870s, suddenly people came up with wire that had fixed barbs, and that could be carted around on spools and spun out across the world. It was a cheap, fast way to keep cows confined to a certain pasture. Within decades, millions of acres of land across the West and the Midwest were fenced in. People no longer just let their cattle range. They kept them on a certain patch of land, working certain parts of soil, and the face of the nation had changed forever. All it took was a way of making wire with spikes.
Simple, but comprehensive, geohacking goes back much further, however. The first major hacks would have to be been the clay bee hives that have been found near ancient fields — one of the earliest ways the world changed. While there have been stable beehives since the tenth century, the ability to keep bees in clay pots was something else again. Why? Let's take a look at a modern example.
In the central valley in California are huge groves of trees that grow almonds. They flower once a year, at a specific time during the year. They need bees. But the land doesn't support bees all year round, so people load hives onto trucks, truck them out to the center of these groves, let them pollinate the plants, and then truck them somewhere else for other growing cycles. In Switzerland they truck beehives up mountains so that they can pollinate the high alpine flowers once a year, and then cart them down again. Beekeeping is an ancient practice, but the ability to haul pollinators wherever you need them allows for mass agriculture in environments you never otherwise see. From massive valleys with only one crop to high mountains that would otherwise have far fewer flowers, it's an easy way to change the landscape completely.
Relatively low-tech geohacking doesn't always mean the spread of agriculture over more land. One of the most notorious and simple geohacks is called the Haber-Bosch Process. Nitrogen is a great booster for plants, but it's hard to get. Chicken poop has a lot of it — which is one of many reasons that chickens are always welcome on farms. But they weren't supplying enough in the early twentieth century, and starvation loomed.
This was frustrating, since by that time everybody knew that the air itself was nearly eighty percent nitrogen. The element just wouldn't react with much, and so it wouldn't be lured into something that could be applied to fields. Fritz Haber, a chemist, came up with a process that used methane and water to produce nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas. The nitrogen would react, then, with a special kind of iron. This would secure the nitrogen into ammonia, which could be used to make nitrate fertilizer.
This process lead to an explosion of crop productivity on what had been exhausted and poor soil. Fertilizers, arguably, make it possible to grow far more food on far less land. It has to be said that nitrates and the fuel-intensive process for making them, aren't altogether an environmental good. There are movements that advocate the end of their use. Still, a relatively simple chemistry experiment utterly transformed the landscape. Some of the world would be wilder - since fertilizers made otherwise commercially barren lands into potential farms. Other parts of the world would probably be more overrun with farms, since fertilizers allow denser and more productive crops to grow on farmland. Undoubtedly a lot of rivers would be cleaner. No matter, what, the discovery, synthesis, and use of a single element that literally filled the air around us, has made the world a more different place than computers have.
When we think of terrestrial landscaping, we think of massive government projects, high-tech terraforming, and reclaiming land from the sea. But it's the small, cheap things that allow the biggest change.
Crop rotation boosted the productivity of farms, transformed the types of plants grown in an area, and disrupted yearly seasonal cycles of those plants. Hybridization of corn lead to the massive corn fields and the fact that corn goes into our food, our food's food, our construction, our preservatives, and many other elements of modern life. Plows that fastened to oxen made farming into a grid-based technological process. These processes make farming possible for big companies, since they cut costs. They cushion risks for small farmers and allow them to move into areas they wouldn't otherwise. They transform the world so subtly and completely that we don't even notice them anymore. And isn't the sign of the best design, that it's becomes part of the world it has made?
Top Image and Honeycomb Image: Waugsberg
Haber Image: Nobel Prize.org