Energy Flow Systems

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Energy Flow Systems

Richard White's Organic Machine, and William Cronon's Changes in the Land, both examine environments as energy flow systems. The energy flow model was utilized by the authors to explain relationships within ecosystems.

Richard White's thesis is to examine the river as an organic machine, as an energy system that, although modified by human intervention, maintains it's natural, its "unmade" qualities. White emphasizes on energy because it is a useful concept that can be easily understood. He says, "the flow of the river is energy, so is the electricity that comes from the dams that block that flow. Human labor is energy; so are the calories that are stored as fat by salmon for their journey upstream." White notes that energy is as concrete as salmon, human bodies, and the Grand Coulee Dam. White wants his readers to think about nature and its relationship with humanity.

White explains how the river is energy. The Columbia River works as gravity pulls it to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia is continuously cutting into the terrain that it flows through. Over millions of years water rushed through the Columbia Basin to form the Columbia River. Water carries soil, silt, and debris downstream. The constant movement of material in the river cuts and shapes the river basin into the land. This movement is a slow and inefficient use of energy. According to White, only two percent of water's potential energy results in the work of erosion. The other ninety-eight percent of water's energy was lost as water molecules rub against themselves, the river bed, and the river banks. This energy was released as heat into the river.

Often the energy of flowing water was not recognized. There are occasions when rivers do show their power is destructive ways. Power was usually demonstrated through floods, and more so in flash floods. Thousands of years ago, an ice dam in the Columbia River, holding the glacial lake Missoula, broke and...
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