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Like Texas in the Summer on the Sun

August 20, 2009

Global warming, or climate change is such a hot (really, puns already?) topic right now.  With all of the chatter, however, there seems to be very little understand about WHY climate change is actually happening.  Recently I read a New Yorker article that explained climate change in the most concise way that I have seen.  It is called The Catastrophist, and it profiles James Hansen, the “grandfather of global warming.” (New Yorker, “The Castrophist,” Eliabeth Kolbert, June 29 2009)  I want to use that to more thoroughly explain climate change, talk a little about carbon off-setting, and then post a little invention idea that I’ve been working on.

Ok, let’s go back 200 million years.  Well… ok wait, scratch that.  Let’s talk carbon cycle first.

Remember earth cycles and systems?  You probably learned about them in Earth Science class in elementary school and 9th grade.  Maybe you even did a project about photosynthesis and respiration?  I remember coloring in trees and arrows– so many arrows!  Well, the carbon cycle in its basic form looks like this:

Carbon Cycle

(Thank you Earth and System Sciences power point; Spring 2009; Dr. Padilla)

Like the above image shows, the earth draws down carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere in a couple of different ways– through photosynthesis (plants) and the ocean (sedimentation, shells and coral).  Now, I knew about plant respiration using carbon dioxide to create food, but the ocean drawing down CO2 was news to me.  The ocean literally absorbs carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere through a series of biological and chemical processes (that’s vague I know, but it’s OK for these purposes).  This dissolved CO2 is then used by animals to make shells and coral, and in turn creates sediments on the ocean floor.

Alright, this is a cycle, so there’s an up arrow too.  Volcanoes, animal respiration, decomposition, and combustion all pump CO2 back up into the atmosphere.  Combustion includes the burning of wood and coal, and the use of fuel.

Right, so back to 200 million years ago.  It was hot.  And not like Texas in the Summer hot, like Texas in the Summer on the Sun hot.  There was no north pole, no south pole– well, I mean, there were poles, but they weren’t cold.  There were no ice caps so the ocean was hundreds of feet above the current sea level.  There was also a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It is now widely agreed that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is directly related to the climate.  Ok, so then how did we get to the current climate conditions?  Well, in short, the Earth kept spinning.  Over time, the plants that covered the continents drew down the carbon dioxide through respiration and photosynthesis.  As the plants died off, and as the Earth changed, the now decomposed plants were pushed down down into the crust and became fossil fuels, like coal and oil.

All of this info is leading to the one main point:  when we talk about global warming, we are talking about 200 million years worth of carbon dioxide being pumped back into the atmosphere in less than 100 years.

Simply put, coal, gas and oil is stored carbon which to took millions and millions of years to be collected.  We are burning them, putting that CO2 back in the atmosphere at a rate that is totally unmanageable for the Earth to sustain. We are steeling from millions of years of careful balance (there’s a great film about this:  Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. You can watch it for free in HD at http://www.youtube.com/homeproject).

Now for the upside.  1. we can stop pumping all of that CO2 back into the atmosphere.  2. we can also do things to encourage drawing the CO2 back down.  So, not only are these climate changes possible to stop, they are theoretically reversible.  What are some people doing?  Carbon off-setting, like planting trees.  That’s a big one.  There is a website called Erase Carbon Footprint where you can put in the amount of CO2 that you used on, let’s say a plane trip, and then donate the amount of money that it takes to plant the number of tree to counter balance that time.  I really really like that idea.  There are also many budding “carbon sink” ideas that are being implemented.  There is some concern with the Oceans pH levels when drawing down carbon dioxide, but ideas including restoring and growing coral reefs which would use the carbon to grow.  I think that there is a lot more research to be done about the ocean and pH levels before we go nuts, though.  There is SOOOO much exciting and current information on carbon off-setting, it’s going to need to be its own blog.  Let me know if you have anything to add!

But first, here’s my own little invention idea for carbon offsetting.  This would be for roofs that are not able to be made “green” and I think of it primarily in an urban setting.  I call it Tree, and it involves three parts: Leaf, Root, and Stem.  Leaf would be a large, thin, permeable and translucent storage of chlorophyll (or algae).  Root would provide the water needed, and Stem would help to power it.  The idea behind it is that it would increase the general surface area where plant respiration could take place.  Really I would love it to be just chlorophyll, but the technology needed to replicate photosynthesis outside of plants hasn’t been developed yet.  I think that algae would work, though, at least in the the sense that algae would resperate.  So Leaf is busy breathing in CO2, using water (from Root), and sunlight, and breathing out O2.  Haha, so just a budding idea, but it’s fun to think about!  Let me know what you think too!

Keep spinning.

-AB

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2009 8:43 pm

    check it out!!! looks like “tree” is already in production… http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-10320198-54.html?tag=mncol;posts

  2. August 26, 2009 6:06 pm

    hot

  3. August 26, 2009 5:40 pm

    “200 million years worth of carbon dioxide being pumped back into the atmosphere in less than 100 years”

    Ohmygodwhyhasnooneeverputitthiswaybefore!

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