The Balance of Earth’s Carbon CyclesPosted: 10 29, 2015
Written by JoEllen McBride
Doctoral Candidate in Astrophysics at UNC
Life requires balance. We spend a large part of our existence balancing our careers and our personal lives, our family and work obligations, and our own personal health. If something occurs that displaces one of the elements of our lives, we take action to bring it back into balance. The Earth is no different. Our planet uses carbon to regulate its temperature with three processes; the geological carbon cycle, the ice-albedo effect, and the biological carbon cycle.
A full turn of the geological carbon cycle happens on the order of a few million years. This process works in conjunction with the second ancient process, the ice-albedo cycle. Together, these two processes cause Earth’s temperature to oscillate between warm and cold periods. The ice-albedo cycle works much faster than the geological carbon cycle, on the order of tens of thousands of years. Like the geological carbon cycle, it is intimately tied to the Earth’s temperature. An object’s albedo defines how much sunlight it reflects, with a higher albedo meaning more reflection. Ice and clouds raise the albedo of a planet. If temperature decreases on Earth, causing the ice caps to grow, more of the Sun’s light is reflected back into space before entering the atmosphere. This means that the Earth’s ocean and land do not absorb as much solar radiation and cannot warm. This causes the Earth to cool further and increase the area the ice caps cover. Without the geological cycle to regulate this process, the Earth would be covered in ice.
These are the carbon cycles that were in place on Earth before the industrial revolution. Humans have added an additional cycle to the planet. Humans have added an additional cycle to the planet. We contribute to the carbon levels in the atmosphere through emissions, when we burn harvested carbon deposits like coal and oil. Currently, human activity is emitting 9 Gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere through fossil fuel burning. Our carbon footprint is between the geological and biological carbon cycles and the Earth is struggling to use up the additional CO2 that we’ve put there. This extra CO2 is being absorbed by the oceans, causing them to become more acidic. It is causing plant life to decrease the number of stomata they grow, so they do not intake more CO2 than is necessary. The added CO2 is causing the Earth to warm faster than any of the more ancient carbon cycles can cool it off. Humans are now a significant CO2 contributor to our planet. Just as we maintain balance in our own lives, we must take steps to ensure that our contributions do not throw a wrench in the carbon cycles already in place on our planet.
Peer edited by Suzan Ok & Holly Bullis
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This article was co-published on the SWAC Blog, The Pipettepen.