Carbon Crash Course: Your guide to the Science Behind Climate Change



Climate change is a global emergency. Between severe weather patterns, droughts, floods, and large-scale loss of animal life and biodiversity, the rapidly changing climate is a major threat to our environment and way of life. But what exactly is happening? Today we’re going to give you a crash course in all things carbon cycle, so you know the science and the facts behind climate change.

The Carbon Cycle

There is a surprisingly small amount of carbon in the atmosphere itself at any given time, with only .0041% of the atmosphere being CO2, but that small amount does almost all the work of keeping the warmth of the sun inside the atmosphere. Most of the carbon is in the ocean, or locked up in organic life. There are two cycles of carbon on earth, the slow cycle and the fast cycle. When most people talk about the carbon cycle, they’re referring to the fast cycle, which is mainly determined by plant life. Using photosynthesis, plants take carbon out of the atmosphere, “storing” it in their bodies, and when they (or the animals that eat them) decompose, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. The most effective ecosystems at storing carbon are tundras, seagrass meadows, mangroves, salt marshes, and tropical rainforests. Tundras are effective because the permafrost often prevents the plant and animal life from decomposing fully, and so if any organic matter starts to get buried it’s likely to stay there. The three coastal regions are effective because the deep roots of the plant life in these areas deposit the carbon underground and underwater, basically pre-burying it. And tropical rainforests just have so much life concentrated in them that the carbon doesn’t leave. 

The slow carbon cycle mainly involves fossils, rocks, and the ocean. Fossil fuels are part of the slow carbon cycle, as without human activity the fossilized organic matter would stay buried until a geological event brings it to the surface. Similarly, plankton and shell building animals create calcium carbonate, which gets transformed into limestone on the ocean floor. The ocean itself is also a part of the slow carbon cycle, as carbon dioxide dissolves in water. Theoretically if we stopped burning all fossil fuels, all the CO2 from industrial society will dissolve into the ocean again. But that would take about 1000 years, so we’re not counting on that as a solution anytime soon.

Human Impact

Human impact has, of course, not been kind to the carbon cycle. Burning fossil fuels shoots all that stored carbon back into the atmosphere, and considering how little carbon is needed to make a large effect it’s easy to see just how industrialization can cause climate change in such a short period of time. How bad is it? One researcher estimates that we’re at carbon peaks that haven’t been seen in three million years. All of humanity is only about 300,000 years old and three million years ago the Antarctic had trees on it. Clearly this is an insane disruption to the carbon cycle. Current estimates believe that we are on track for a 2.5 to 10 degree celsius increase in world temperatures over the next century, and the arctic is expected to have ice-free summers by the mid century. 

The regions that store carbon are also in trouble due to human development. The agriculture industry is one of the biggest culprits, clearcutting and burning down tropical rainforests for cattle farming in Brazil and palm oil in Indonesia. Like with fossil fuels, burning trees sends all that carbon straight up into the atmosphere. More than 35% of the world’s mangroves have been cleared for development or lost from other man made issues such as pollution, climate change, and overfishing. As polar regions are heating up faster than the rest of the world, the permafrost under the tundra are starting to melt, releasing that trapped CO2 as the organic matter begins to decay again. 

How to Help

Don’t let this get you don’t though. If we act now, we can slow down climate change and prevent the worst of it. We largely have most of the technology to fight climate change, and while we can’t eliminate fossil fuels with a snap of a finger we can scale up renewable energy use to mitigate the damage. NASA believes this is the first phase of combating climate change, with the second being figuring out how to adapt to the climate change that has already happened. Solving climate change will require both global and local solutions. Planting trees to protecting rainforests, switching to slow fashion to a global transition away from monocrop farming, switching to public transport to major investments in renewable infrastructure. One thing we highly recommend is for people to count their carbon use with apps like Leafully and GoodGuide. Getting a handle on what you do personally is the first step in figuring out long term changes, and remember, small actions done collectively lead to huge changes overall.

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