If for some reason you have read everything up to this point, you may be asking, what about Climate Change?! What about the utter physical devastation our energy spending spree has brought upon us, our children, and our children’s children. Well, if you want the full story, go research it yourself. If you want a short book about it, read “An Inconvenient Truth” or any of the other books focused on climate change and its effects. Here, I will provide a shorter than shorter synopsis of the whole thing.
Remember our little plant friend from long long ago who worked hard, collected energy, lived his life, and then died and was buried? Well, when he took some of the sun’s energy to the grave with him, he did so in the form of carbon chains. Ever wonder why there isn’t a divot around a massive tree from all the soil that must have gone in to making it? I did. Aside from the fact that such a divot would likely be filled in at the rate which the tree grows, it is also non-existent because most of the tree’s biomass does not come from the ground. Carbon, which is the dominant element in plants, does not just come from the ground. Remember photosynthesis? It take in carbon dioxide, water, and light energy and creates carbon sugar chains and oxygen as products. Humans and other living creatures, not by coincidence, take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. In many senses, it is a symbiotic relationship. Generally, much of the carbon dioxide stored in organic material is buried and enters the next stage of something known as the “Carbon Cycle.” Until recently, the cycle, shown in the picture to the right, did not include the “Fossil Fuel Emissions” part. It now plays large enough a role that you will be hard pressed to find a carbon model that does not include it. What is important about the Carbon Cycle is the time scale on which is usually works. Imagine a carbon molecule, perhaps attached to two oxygen molecules (carbon dioxide), floating around aimlessly in the atmosphere. Well, from the time a plant may use up that molecule, if it then continues to follow the cycle, it will be millions of years until it is re-released into the atmosphere by some natural process like a volcano. Of course, there are other paths that carbon can take which may release it to the atmosphere soon ,like being eaten by a cow our combusted in a forest fire, but over time, the cycle has grown relatively steady with relatively constant stores of carbon at each stage of the cycle. It takes millions of years for all the carbon to be turned over and to enter a new stage. MILLIONS OF YEARS. Give yourself some perspective and realize that humans have been on earth about 200,000 years, 20% of 1 million years. We have only been using fossil fuels for about 300 years, 0.03% of a millions years. The carbon cycle has been doing its thing for many millions of years, long before any major secondary consumer even walked around on this planet. Need some more perspective? Take a look at a geologic timescale. Or, if you want more perspective still, listen to Neil Tyson Degrasse’s or Carl Segan’s Cosmos speech on the cosmic calendar. This may give you a better idea of the time scale we are working with – millions to billions of years. We humans have been on here on earth for but a small spec of time.
We have been productive though. Unlike any other animal, we have added a whole new stage to the carbon cycle – fossil fuel emissions. The amount of carbon that is stored underground, that is the burial flux, is a relatively small number. Still, over years, this process balances the carbon in our atmosphere and oceans, preventing them from being overwhelmed with carbon from volcanoes, respiration, and other carbon dioxide emitting processes. In the past couple thousand years since humans develops strong communal living tendencies, we have began to cut down some areas of vegetation and burn fixed carbon for heat, releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere. The overall effect though was relatively small and could be buffered by the atmosphere, oceans, and other areas where photosynthesis increased. In the past few hundred years though, we have released millions upon millions of years worth of stored carbon directly back into the atmosphere at a rate around 6.3 Pg of carbon (Pg C) per year. A Pg =1015 grams=one billion metric tonnes. The carbon reservoir of the atmosphere is somewhere around 730 Pg C and the reservoir of the ocean is about 38,000 Pg C. So, does our release of stored carbon have an effect on these massive reservoirs? Yes. Most definitely without a doubt. The burial rate of carbon is approximately 0.2 Pg C per year. That means that only about 3% of the carbon we remove from the ground and release into the atmosphere each year is reburied. There is a net 6 Pg C being added to the surface carbon reservoirs each year. The rate of burning fossil fuels has been gradually increasing, but if this rate were to be constant for just 100 years, numerically speaking, we would nearly double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Now, fortunately for us, some of this carbon that is taken up by the atmosphere is absorbed by our oceans. This is less fortunate for our friends in the ocean. Still, the increase in Carbon in the atmosphere is real and measurable. Over the past couple thousands of years for which we can estimate atmospheric CO2 levels with some certainty using sediment and ice cores (ask me how we do this if you really want to know), we have been able to pretty well map the temporal variations of CO2 relating to glacial periods and non glacial periods (See figure to right – x-scale is years,y-scale is parts per million CO2) with glacial periods having lower CO2 levels than non glacial periods. Glacial and inter glacial periods are natural phenomenons caused by a set of cycles known as the Milankovitch cycles which deal with the earth’s tilt, the shape of its orbit around the sun, and its precession, or its orientation of its rotational axis. These cause the earth to warm and cool on the time scale of roughly 100,000 years. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the mass burning of fossil fuels, we have seen a new and wholly unnatural trend in atmospheric CO2 levels (See picture to the left). We have well exceed the roughly 300 ppm cap we saw over the last couple thousand years. Our burning of fossil fuels has directly caused an increase of nearly 100 ppm in just the last few hundred years. Skeptical? Check out NOAA’s site (here) where they show our best direct measurements from an observatory in Mauna Loa Hawaii over the past 50+ years. There is absolutely do doubt that we are causing a massive and rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 levels through the burning of fossil fuels.
So who cares if there is more CO2 in the atmosphere? Well, everyone should. CO2 is a greenhouse gas which means it absorbs and emits thermal radiation from the sun. When the solar radiation has finished its nice 8 minute journey from the sun to earth and hits our atmosphere, more of the energy will be absorbed and less will pass through or be reflected. This means more thermal energy on earth, hence why scientists originally called the phenomena global warming. Increased levels of greenhouse gases are causing our plant to warm, so let’s call it global warming. And warming we are! Wowza, a whole half a degree warmer in 30 years. Show any scientists the data, they will tell you we are experiencing global warming. This is just what they meant when they said global warming. However, we have found that the average non-physical scientist doesn’t think half a degree of warming over the course of 30 years means anything. I mean, the temperature fluctuates 10 degrees (C) on a daily basis all the time. The real problem here is not that we are going to get roasted here on our planet, at least not anytime soon. The problem is that these changes in average temperature have some profound effects on the way our earth operates.
Here are some reason why people should care, right now, about global warming/climate change. In America, approximately 40 percent of the nation’s population lives in counties directly on the shoreline which make up less than 10% of our land area. These areas, which hold most of the expensive real estate, will have to face an ever rising ocean, constantly trying to push them landward. Like the average global temperature, the rise will be slow, but it will be real. In areas where homes, water tables, and businesses are frequently just above the high tide level, even small rises in ocean levels will serious effects. Sea level rise, in addition to increasingly devastating and consistent storms and hurricanes, is already being felt in many areas. These types of stories will undoubtedly become increasingly common. Storms are not the only meteorological events of concern either. While some areas experience storms and flooding, other are already experiencing unprecedented droughts. The effects on our ecosystem are sure to be at least as devastating. Already, as our oceans begin to move towards an equilibrium with the elevated levels of CO2 found in
the atmosphere, we are seeing the consequences. Entire species are going extinct. Daniel Simberloff is an ecologist and expert in biological diversity at the University of Tennessee. He says, “The speed at which species are being lost is much faster than any we’ve seen in the past — including those [extinctions] related to meteor collisions” (from Jackson, 2012). CO2, which acts to acidify the ocean, is causing some oceanic organisms to literally dissolve. Corals are being bleached and the small shells around some micro- organisms are beginning to dissolve while they live. Foraminifera have frequently been used as a proxy for past climate by using a mass spectrometer to measure the amounts of different oxygen isotopes in shells from ocean cores. Soon, their shells won’t even reach the bottom before dissolving in the acidic oceans.
What worse is, most of the warming we are instigating by releasing CO2 causes a positive feedback. We warm the atmosphere, which melts land and sea ice, increasing the surface area of our planet covered by water instead of ice, which increasing the amount of solar radiation we absorb instead of reflect, further warming our earth and atmosphere. A more recent discovery regarding the warming of our oceans is the increase in methane seeps. Warmer oceans is causing the release of stored methane which also causes further warming. I could go on and on, but the basic point is, out way of life is not only not sustainable for us, but it is not sustainable for our planet. We consider ourselves the smartest beings to ever live on this planet (or possibly any), but we may also be the only ones to insure our very own doom and the mass extinction of much of our planets life. Not even the dinosaurs were dumb enough to do that. At this point, we are already very late to the game. Many of the effects of our mass burning of fossil fuels are unavoidable now. Still, we can not just continue business as usual any longer. Every day we do nothing is a step close the the edge, the point at which absolutely nothing can be done to prevent a full ecosystem collapse. When we began to burn fossil fuels, we had no idea what sort of ecological devastation would ensue, but now, we know so much about the negative repercussions of our energy spending spree and discover more nearly every day. When will we stop, truly consider what we are doing, gasp at our own inhumanity, and start making the changes we so desperately need. It must be soon or else life on this planet will begin to get quite ugly.