The earth appears to be warming and the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere is one metric scientists pay attention to when trying to predict future trends. From an article in the New York Times, written by energy and environment journalist Justin Gillis and entitled ‘The Threats to a Crucial Canopy.‘
In the 1950s, when a scientist named Charles David Keeling first obtained accurate measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a mystery presented itself. Only about half the carbon that people were releasing into the sky seemed to be staying there. It took scientists decades to figure out where the rest was going. The most comprehensive estimates on the role of forests were published only a few weeks ago by an international team of scientists.
As best researchers can tell, the oceans are taking up about a quarter of the carbon emissions arising from human activities. That is causing the sea to become more acidic and is expected to damage marine life over the long run, perhaps catastrophically. But the chemistry is at least somewhat predictable, and scientists are reasonably confident the oceans will continue absorbing carbon for many decades.
Trees are taking up a similar amount of carbon, but whether this will continue is much less certain, as the recent forest damage illustrates.
Carbon dioxide is an essential part of the cycle of life on Earth, but geologic history suggests that too much can cause the climate to warm sharply. With enough time, the chemical cycles operating on the planet have a tendency to bury excess carbon.
In the 19th century, humans discovered the usefulness of some forms of buried carbon — coal, oil and natural gas — as a source of energy, and have been perturbing the natural order ever since. About 10 billion tons of carbon are pouring into the atmosphere every year from the combustion of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests.
The concentration of the gas in the atmosphere has jumped 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution, and scientists fear it could double or even triple this century, with profound consequences.
Beezer here. The article documents several attacks that are underway against our forests, from warmer temperatures that are drying out forests making them vulnerable to huge fires, to the expansion of tree destroying beetles whose populations are no longer controlled by cold winters. Between forests and oceans, fully half of atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed in a natural tug of war that keeps the earth’s systems in rough balance. In geological time frames these swings can take hundreds of thousands of years, longer than our existence as a species. These swings have wiped out species who dominated the ecosystem for millions of years. We may be the first specie that would recognize the danger posed by global warming, but recognizing danger and knowing what to do about it may be quite different challenges.