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Land plants and the ocean have taken up about 55 percent of the extra carbon people have put into the atmosphere while about 45 percent has stayed in the atmosphere. Eventually, the land and oceans will take up most of the extra carbon dioxide, but as much as 20 percent may remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.
The changes in the carbon cycle impact each pool. Excess carbon in the atmosphere warms the planet and helps plants on land grow more. Excess carbon in the ocean makes the water more acidic, putting marine life in danger.
It is significant that so much carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere because CO2 is the most important gas for controlling Earth’s temperature. Carbon dioxide, methane, and halocarbons are greenhouse gases that absorb a wide range of energy—including infrared energy (heat) emitted by the Earth—and then re-emit it. The re-emitted energy travels out in all directions, but some returns to Earth, where it heats the surface. Without greenhouse gases, Earth would be a frozen -18 degrees Celsius . With too many greenhouse gases, Earth would be like Venus, where the greenhouse atmosphere keeps temperatures around 400 degrees Celsius.
Carbon dioxide causes about 20 percent of Earth’s greenhouse effect; water vapor accounts for about 50 percent; and clouds account for 25 percent. The rest is caused by small particles (aerosols) and minor greenhouse gases like methane.
Warmer temperatures evaporate more water from the oceans, expand air masses, and lead to higher humidity. Cooling causes water vapor to condense and fall out as rain, sleet, or snow.
Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, remains a gas at a wider range of atmospheric temperatures than water. Carbon dioxide molecules provide the initial greenhouse heating needed to maintain water vapor concentrations. When carbon dioxide concentrations drop, Earth cools, some water vapor falls out of the atmosphere, and the greenhouse warming caused by water vapor drops. Likewise, when carbon dioxide concentrations rise, air temperatures go up, and more water vapor evaporates into the atmosphere—which then amplifies greenhouse heating.
Rising carbon dioxide concentrations are already causing the planet to heat up. At the same time that greenhouse gases have been increasing, average global temperatures have risen 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880.
30 percent of the carbon dioxide that people have put into the atmosphere has diffused into the ocean through the direct chemical exchange. Dissolving carbon dioxide in the ocean creates carbonic acid, which increases the acidity of the water. Or rather, a slightly alkaline ocean becomes a little less alkaline. Since 1750, the pH of the ocean’s surface has dropped by 0.1, a 30 percent change in acidity.
Ocean acidification affects marine organisms in two ways. First, carbonic acid reacts with carbonate ions in the water to form bicarbonate.
Second, the more acidic water is, the better it dissolves calcium carbonate. In the long run, this reaction will allow the ocean to soak up excess carbon dioxide because more acidic water will dissolve more rock, release more carbonate ions, and increase the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. In the meantime, though, more acidic water will dissolve the carbonate shells of marine organisms, making them weak.
Warmer oceans—a product of the greenhouse effect—could also decrease the abundance of phytoplankton, which grow better in cool, nutrient-rich waters. This could limit the ocean’s ability to take carbon from the atmosphere through the fast carbon cycle.
Carbon dioxide is essential for plant and phytoplankton growth. An increase in carbon dioxide could increase growth by fertilizing those few species of phytoplankton and ocean plants (like sea grasses) that take carbon dioxide directly from the water. However, most species are not helped by the increased availability of carbon dioxide.
Plants on land have taken up approximately 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that humans have put into the atmosphere. The amount of carbon that plants take up varies greatly from year to year, but in general, the world’s plants have increased the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb since 1960. Only some of this increase occurred as a direct result of fossil fuel emissions.
With more atmospheric carbon dioxide available to convert to plant matter in photosynthesis, plants were able to grow more. This increased growth is referred to as carbon fertilization. Models predict that plants might grow anywhere from 12 to 76 percent more if atmospheric carbon dioxide is doubled, as long as nothing else, like water shortages, limits their growth.
Plants also need water, sunlight, and nutrients, especially nitrogen. If a plant doesn’t have one of these things, it won’t grow regardless of how abundant the other necessities are. There is a limit to how much carbon plants can take out of the atmosphere, and that limit varies from region to region. So far, it appears that carbon dioxide fertilization increases plant growth until the plant reaches a limit in the amount of water or nitrogen available.
Agriculture has become much more intensive, so we can grow more food on less land. In high and mid-latitudes, abandoned farmland is reverting to forest, and these forests store much more carbon, both in wood and soil, than crops would. In many places, we prevent plant carbon from entering the atmosphere by extinguishing wildfires. (California)
This allows woody material (which stores carbon) to build up. All of these land use decisions are helping plants absorb human-released carbon in the Northern Hemisphere.
As of 2008, deforestation accounted for about 12 percent of all human carbon dioxide emissions.
The biggest changes in the land carbon cycle are likely to come because of climate change. Carbon dioxide increases temperatures, extending the growing season and increasing humidity. Both factors have led to some additional plant growth. However, warmer temperatures also stress plants. With a longer, warmer growing season, plants need more water to survive. Scientists are already seeing evidence that plants in the Northern Hemisphere slow their growth in the summer because of warm temperatures and water shortages.
The warming caused by rising greenhouse gases may also “bake” the soil, accelerating the rate at which carbon seeps out in some places. This is of particular concern in the far north, where frozen soil—permafrost—is thawing. Permafrost contains rich deposits of carbon from plant matter that has accumulated for thousands of years because the cold slows decay. When the soil warms, the organic matter decays and carbon—in the form of methane and carbon dioxide—seeps into the atmosphere.
Current research estimates that permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere holds 1,672 billion tons (Petagrams) of organic carbon. If just 10 percent of this permafrost were to thaw, it could release enough extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to raise temperatures an additional 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.
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