Could Carbon in the Atmosphere Destroy All Life on Earth
Are you thinking about the future? Maybe it’s something that we all need to be doing more of. But recently, I’ve been doing some thinking about our atmosphere and the fate of life on Earth because of climate change. I must admit, it’s been giving me the willies. Plus, I think it may bring up some questions you didn’t even know you had.
1. Why Do We Care About Carbon in the Atmosphere?
2. Greenhouse Gases and the Atmosphere
3. How Does Burning Fossil Fuels Cause CO2?
4. It’s Also Produced Through Human Activity
5. Plants Need Carbon Dioxide to Grow
6. Life On Earth Would Fail Without Carbon
7. So, What Can We Do About It?
Why Do We Care about Carbon in the Atmosphere?
Carbon is a primary greenhouse gas, and therefore plays a critical role in regulating the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere.
In our atmosphere carbon is found as carbon dioxide (CO2). Plants use CO2 from the atmosphere to grow, and animals eat plants to gain energy.
Animals then return carbon to the atmosphere when they breathe out and when they die. This natural cycle of carbon in the Earth’s system has remained stable for thousands of years.
However, this stability is being disrupted by human activity. The amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere from activities like burning fossil fuels, deforestation and farming is now higher than it has ever been in human history.
This means that more carbon is entering the atmosphere than can be removed by plants on land or by marine organisms in the oceans, causing a build-up of CO2 in our air.
It is important that we keep track of how much carbon is in the atmosphere. This is because it plays such an important role in determining how much energy the Earth absorbs from the sun and how much energy it radiates back out into space.
At a certain level of atmospheric carbon — known as the “point of no return” — these interactions become so unbalanced that there is no stopping or slowing down climate change.
Achieving this point would lead to catastrophic climate change, where greenhouse gases continue to rise despite any efforts to reduce emissions.
Greenhouse Gases and the Atmosphere
One way to understand global warming is to look at it scientifically. Our atmosphere is a layer of gases that surround Planet Earth. These gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone.
The average temperature of the earth’s surface is determined by how much energy enters the atmosphere from the sun and how much energy escapes back into space.
Greenhouse gases trap energy in the atmosphere and keep the Earth warm enough for life.
All air is made up of a mixture of gases. These gases are used to warm the planet and keep it cool. Heat from the Sun enters the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the Earth’s surface.
The Earth’s surface then sends some of this heat back into space as thermal radiation. Some of these gases, also known as greenhouse gases, get trapped in the atmosphere, preventing them from leaving.
These greenhouse gases are released into the air as products of human activities. This process has dramatically increased since the middle of the 20th century.
As more greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, more heat becomes trapped in it. This causes a gradual rise in global temperatures that is referred to as global warming or climate change.
The average temperature of the earth has risen by around 1°C over the last century, which may not sound like much, but even a small increase in temperature can cause big changes in climate.
Why do we care about global warming? Because melting glaciers have caused sea levels to rise 6 to 8 inches over the past 100 years. And our oceans are continuing to rise at a rate of about 0.14 inch per year.
That may not seem like a lot but think about it this way: if all the ice melted on top of Mount Everest, it would probably raise sea levels by about 200 feet!
How Does Burning Fossil Fuels Cause CO2?
Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes changes in the global climate. Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, primarily coal, fuel oil or natural gas, formed from the remains of dead plants and animals.
The term fossil fuel also includes hydrocarbon containing natural resources which are not obtained from plant or animal sources. These include methane hydrates and tar sands.
Carbon is considered a vital building block for life on Earth. It exists in many forms in nature, including as a component of atmospheric carbon dioxide gas.
Plants absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and use it to create energy and building materials. Animals get carbon by eating plants or other animals that eat plants.
When living organisms die, they decay and release their stored carbon back into the environment. Over millions of years, this process led to the formation of coal, oil, and natural gas deposits deep within the Earth’s crust.
Humans began burning fossil fuels for energy purposes sometime during the 18th century industrial revolution. Before then, people used wood as fuel for heat, cooking and manufacturing purposes.
As wood became more scarce and costly to obtain because of deforestation concerns, humans turned to coal as a replacement fuel source for heat in homes, businesses, and industries.
Carbon dioxide is a gas that is found in the atmosphere. It is an odourless, colourless gas that occurs naturally and is essential for life. In fact, humans, and animals exhale carbon dioxide with every breath.
It’s Also Produced through Human Activity
Carbon dioxide is one of the main drivers of global warming. It’s a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is present naturally in the atmosphere and is also produced through human activity.
Carbon is one of the most abundant element. And it forms an especially large number of compounds, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon disulphide.
Carbon also forms the basis for organic chemistry, as it can bond with itself to form long chains called hydrocarbons. Coal and petroleum are examples of this type of compound.
Carbon is essential for life on Earth. It is the 4th most plentiful element that we have in our universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen.
Humans have a natural tendency to burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, or gas as they release energy when burned in the presence of oxygen. This process releases CO2 into our atmosphere which has caused global warming over time due to its ability to absorb heat from the sun.
Because CO2 is naturally present in the atmosphere, it’s often mistaken for a harmless trace gas. But over the last century, humans have dramatically altered the global carbon cycle by burning fossil fuels and clearing forests.
In addition to the CO2 emitted directly from fossil fuel use, large amounts of CO2 are released into the atmosphere through deforestation, land-use changes, and other human activities.
While CO2 emissions come from a variety of natural sources, human-related emissions are responsible for the increase that has occurred in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.
The burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), solid waste, trees and wood products, and substances used in chemical manufacturing are among major sources.
Plants Need Carbon Dioxide to Grow
Carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants through small openings on the underside of its leaves called stomata.
In the process, carbon dioxide is combined with water and then broken down by light energy to produce energy for the plant. This process is known as photosynthesis.
Plants need nutrients for growth, and carbon dioxide can act as a nutrient for plants.
Plants absorb carbon dioxide through their leaves, which are covered with tiny pores that allow carbon dioxide to enter the plant and oxygen to leave it. Carbon dioxide enters these pores to be converted into energy for plant growth.
A plant’s roots often come into contact with soil rich in other nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.
Once these nutrients are absorbed by a plant’s roots, they are then transported throughout its stem and leaves using a series of tubes called xylem. Once inside the leaf, these nutrients are transferred to chloroplasts. These contain chlorophyll pigments that use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into energy for the plant’s growth and maintenance.
Plants also utilise carbon dioxide to make tissue that stores starches or sugars. These starches are then used as food by a plant during times when photosynthesis cannot take place due to insufficient sunlight or lack of water.
Plants absorb more CO2 than any other major gas in the atmosphere, and it is one of the most important factors for plant growth along with water and sunlight.
Plants also give off oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis, which is how humans and other living things breathe.
Life on Earth Would Fail without Carbon
Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We breathe carbon; plants take in carbon dioxide and give us oxygen.
Animals eat plants to get energy, and animals eat other animals for energy. The cycle continues for as long as there is carbon on Earth.
You might think that because we have all this carbon, it wouldn’t be a problem if we were to send a little more into the atmosphere.
But there’s a lot of carbon in the crust of our planet and very little in the atmosphere; we’ve already sent too much into the air through pollution from burning fossil fuels.
When people talk about carbon, they are usually talking about carbon dioxide (CO2), which is only one form. Carbon dioxide is a gas that makes up less than 0.04% of the atmosphere.
It is considered a “greenhouse gas” which means that it absorbs heat from sunlight and prevents it from escaping back into space.
Humans consist mostly of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. We need these elements to survive. But what if one was missing?
Scientists have discovered that without carbon, there’s no life on Earth. It’s a key component of DNA and RNA–the molecules that carry our genetic information–and it’s found in proteins, which are the basic building blocks of life.
Our planet would be unrecognisable. Without carbon, we wouldn’t be here to ask why there isn’t carbon on Earth; there also wouldn’t be any plants or animals.
No plants means no oxygen for us to breathe, because plants produce most of our planet’s oxygen through photosynthesis. That’s a process that requires carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water from the ground.
So, What Can We Do about It?
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is not our friend. It’s destroying the ozone layer, and it’s causing climate change – which, in turn, is radically changing the temperature of the oceans and leading to a host of unpredictable effects.
But here’s something even scarier: according to a paper by scientists at NASA, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might eventually rise to levels that make it deadly – not only for humans and animals, but for all life on Earth.
The paper is about an event that took place long ago – about 2.4 billion years ago, to be exact. At that time, something radical changed in the environment on Earth: oxygen started appearing in the atmosphere.
While it’s not certain exactly how this happened, it seems there was a “Great Oxidation Event” that led to large amounts of oxygen being released into the atmosphere.
The best guess is that this was due to new types of photosynthetic bacteria appearing on Earth and cleaning up carbon dioxide.
Scientists have known about this for a while. But now they’ve discovered another key thing about this event: when oxygen first appeared in the atmosphere, it wasn’t stable – at least not as stable as it is today.
In fact, there were times when virtually all the oxygen disappeared from the atmosphere altogether.
This means that at some point after oxygen first appeared, something changed that stabilised the amount of oxygen in the air.
We simply didn’t know enough about the climate when we first began to burn fossil fuels. So, people in the 18th and 19th centuries just kept going.
If it turns out that they were wrong, then they will have inadvertently contributed to what could be the greatest die-off of all time in the very near future.
We must learn from the past so we can move forward.
Carbon in the atmosphere is rising, and scientists project that each year they’ll continue to climb, a threat to one is a threat to all of us.