I’d like to write a follow-up to Tim’s amazing graphics-filled analysis of past and current trends of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and resulting temperature changes…I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “dual nature of carbon.” Carbon is, obviously, the most basic life-element on Earth. We need it…to build our cells: plant, animal, fungi, and all microorganisms. Plants and photosynthetic bacteria need it to photosynthesize, and we non-photosynthesizers need plants to create oxygen for us. That’s the good side of carbon. The scary side of carbon is the side we’re bringing out into the open in part through the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of other carbon sinks (natural reservoirs of carbon on the planet that isolate carbon from the atmosphere) such as peatlands and forests.
Fossil fuels: petroleum (oil), coal, and natural gas.
As Tim so eloquently illustrated in the previous post, this activity is resulting in exponentially increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, which decreases the Earth’s ability to reflect heat back into space. In my entry, here, I’d like to discuss the natural cycling of carbon. I think it’s important, going forward, for the people in charge of making decisions in our energy and environmental policies to understand the very basic mechanisms by which our biosphere functions. (That said, one of the things I’d like to focus on in this blog is making this information a. accessible to non-scientists, and b. presented in a way so clear as to be irrefutable. For example, I think Tim’s graphs below do this beautifully.) A lack of this understanding, plus the purposeful ignorance by which many of our politicians function, will result in disasterously inadequate climate policies, or none at all. We just don’t have time for that anymore. We are quickly spiraling out of control, quickly approaching the threshold of no return. At a certain point, our Earth System’s mechanisms will no longer be capable of correcting the massive anthropogenic perturbations we’re throwing into the mix. This entry will discuss how these mechanisms can “self-correct” (or “us-correct” might be more appropriate for our current situation)…up to a certain point.
The Organic Carbon Cycle and the Biological Pump
The Organic Carbon Cycle:
The basic way in which Earth’s organisms contribute to system cycles is by recycling carbon (in addition to other nutrients and materials used in life processes) throughout the biosphere. …read more
Designer: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal; All data: http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/historical-trends-in-carbon-d ioxide-concentrations-and-temperature-on-a-geological-and-re cent-time-scale
The above [wonderful] graphic outlines the correlations between temperature increases and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere over the past 400,000 years. As you can see, there is a definite pattern that links the two variables…basically, the higher the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere the higher the average surface temperature. For hundreds of thousands of years, notice how the levels of CO2 fluctuated from ~ 200 ppm – 280 ppm. These fluctuations are caused by natural cyclic processes that determine the position and orientation of the Earth with regard to the Sun…basically, for millions of years, the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and surface temperature of Earth were cycling up and down in response to other cyclical processes: the orbital patterns of Earth relative to the Sun (axis tilt of Earth relative to Sun, and Earth’s distance from the sun). However, according to these orbital patterns, Earth should be heading into another period of glaciations/ice age. Are we? In short, no, we are not heading into another ice age…we have stopped it from occurring. Due to the extra amounts of carbon dioxide that humans have released over the last few hundred years (notice red-spike in graph), we have been able to raise the concentrations of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere to the point where these natural orbital cycles are no longer in charge of Earth’s climate, we are.
The below graph outlines the recent observations
This dashboard will allow you to see the CO2 emissions by sector for the US. Just about anything is clickable…you can click a point on the trend lines, you can click a year, or even a source in the legend. If you want to “refresh” the graph, you can click the “revert to all” button on the bottom (circular arrow), or you can click the white-space in the graph but it might take a couple clicks before it works!…you can also highlight anything, zoom in, or hover for data…. Enjoy. Dashboard 1 Powered by Tableau
This next graphic will allow you to drill a bit further into the specifics of each state. Click a state and notice the trend lines of each sector’s emissions for that state. The thickness of the lines corresponds to the rate of increase/decrease of emissions for that year. To revert to the national total, you can click the white space within the bar graph or the “revert to all” (the circular arrow) button on the bottom. The percent signs show you the average percent of total US emissions from 1990-2007. Dashboard 2 Powered by Tableau
All data taken from US EPA. I’ll come up with a per capita version