That reasoning established that global warming is certainly "real" and is undeniable, as some scientists have said for decades (I happened to have been one of them), that it is primarily due to the carbon dioxide produced by internal-combustion-powered vehicles, by residential, commercial and industrial processes which burn fossil fuels, and by the effluent from coal-burning, natural-gas-burning and petroleum-burning electric power plants. It also presented the unavoidable calculations that we had already (2007) added enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to cause the Earth's Equilibrium temperature to NOW be possibly at around 83°F (rather than the 58°F that we are still measuring). The fact that the massive Earth itself has to be heated up before the atmosphere can get up to that equilibrium temperature, and that the rock of the Earth's Crust is not very good at conducting heat (thermal conductivity), we calculated a lag-time of around 140 years for the atmosphere to get to its proper Equilibrium temperature. And that the net result of all that analysis is that we have already done sufficient harm where the atmosphere will rise in temperature for those next 140 years until it is at that new Equilibrium temperature 25°F hotter world-wide than it is today. And that such a situation is horrible beyond imagination.
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Politicians and businessmen are NOT going to do anything significant about it, except to give impressive speeches about what they PLAN to do. And doing irrelevantly small things! They still do not seem to comprehend the scale of the problem. Press Conferences are being given regarding ideas of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pumping it into the ground! Such people don't seem to realize that it would soon simply seep/percolate out and back into the atmosphere. We all know that there is Radon gas that is seeping up out of the earth everywhere! If highly pressurized regions of carbon dioxide gas were injected somewhere down there, it would seep / percolate out even far faster. They also seem to be envisioning a rather small quantity of carbon dioxide gas that they would be able to process in such ways. We will shortly see that we ADD at least 300 trillion MORE cubic feet of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and that the US government Research Station at the South Pole confirms this fact, also describable as just over 30 billion (metric) tons of carbon dioxide being added each year. All this effect is just from burning the fossil fuels of petroleum (oil), natural gas and coal. So, being a fairly creative Physicist, I have spent several years in trying to think and research into innovative ideas to consider.
Unfortunately, by 2007, I had already considered and dismissed around 150 different ideas! Pretty much ANY "mechanism" is just too ridiculously tiny to deal with the scale of this situation. Just the fact that we are currently putting an EXTRA 30 BILLION TONS of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere EVERY YEAR is difficult to comprehend! Since it is a gas, it is actually around 300,000,000,000,000 cubic feet of carbon dioxide that we humans are collectively pumping into the atmosphere each year. A number so big it is almost meaningless! Consider a giant football stadium, one that holds 100,000 people. Consider the amount of air (gas) contained within its space, if it had an imaginary lid on it. Around 12,000,000 such stadiums would be required to contain all the carbon dioxide that our vehicles and powerplants add to the atmosphere every year! Around 30,000 such stadiums would be required to hold the carbon dioxide we send up EACH DAY! And anyone thinks they are going to set up enough equipment to PROCESS that much gas??? And all this equipment would need a LOT of power to run. Where would THAT com from??? Even if it could be somehow removed from the atmosphere, and then somehow converted into either compressed gas or liquid, consider that we are talking about 30 billion tons that get added every year! A tanker-trailer semi can haul around 15 tons max (30,000 pounds), so this is referring to TWO BILLION FULL TRUCKLOADS every year! That is around SIX MILLION FULL TRUCKLOADS EVERY DAY!
The United States has about 1/20 of the people of the world, but we send roughly 1/4 of all the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere of the entire world. It is certainly true that developing countries, specifically China, are rapidly growing, building new electric power plants at the rate of about one per week, and building and buying vehicles at amazing rates. They intend to catch up to the United States in most ways, which will include energy wastefulness and generation of carbon dioxide. So the future figures to get far worse regarding the amounts of carbon dioxide that the world's people send into the atmosphere.
It is certainly true that we presently use special industrial air compressors to chill air down to -150°F or so, so that the carbon dioxide liquefies and solidifies, but that equipment uses a LOT of power, and the total amounts of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere is only a tiny amount, in the millions of cubic feet for all the equipment in the world. If there were a million times that much equipment, and we had the power to run them all, we STILL would not be able to remove the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere each year, much less actually gain any ground!
So, an assortment of mechanical concepts actually work, but for such miniscule amounts that they are not even worth seriously considering.
Only one currently used process has even measurable success, something called the Solvay Process. There are around 140 factories around the world which use that process, and they collectively remove a few million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We would need thousands of times as many Solvay Process factories operating, and they would need to use up a lot of energy, which would certainly come from burning fossil-fuels.
The chemical reaction of Photosynthesis is generally this one:
(6) H2O + (6) CO2 + sunlight energy gives C6H12O6 + (6) O2.
It's really an interesting process, taking generic water (usually from the ground) and carbon dioxide (from the air) and energy from sunlight and creating a complex hydrocarbon molecule (called glucose) and releasing oxygen in the process. Essentially all living things exist because of this single chemical reaction, because we all use that glucose as the energy source for nearly all biological functions. (As the glucose is broken down, back into water and carbon dioxide inside us, for example, energy that had been earlier captured from sunlight is released to drive needed chemical reactions and the water and carbon dioxide is released in our exhaled breath.) note 1
Most plants do this photosynthesis. Tropical rain forests tend to do it more efficiently, mostly because they can grow all year long and they have excellent supplies of both water and carbon dioxide. It is NOT the most intelligent thing for humans to be doing in chopping down rain forests at the rate of a football-field-size every few seconds (to clear for farm land, which then becomes useless after just a few years of farming). As humans, as animals, we NEED oxygen to breathe! Without plants, there would not be any oxygen in the atmosphere!
Nature has a wonderful way of adapting to any new environmental conditions. But nature needs time to react to environmental changes, and no one really knows how quickly the planet and the atmosphere and the biosphere could respond to such enormous additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The minimal existing evidence seems very negative and dire.
IF the response time was on the order of ten years, which would be a good thing, then there would already be substantially larger numbers of plants growing, to process the 30% greater amount of available carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began (390 ppm / 280 ppm is about a 30% increase). In that case, the measured concentrations in the atmosphere would seem to not significantly change over time; the increases in carbon dioxide would simply cause more plants to grow and thrive, which would consume the excess carbon dioxide. But there seems to be no evidence for such a rapid Earth response; such a massive increase in the number of plants alive today. And that is VERY bad! The planet actually has an additional way to deal with variations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, since ocean water is able to dissolve/absorb amazingly large amounts of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, when water warms, it is then able to absorb far less, and the very best absorption is around zero degrees Centigrade. Very little is yet known about this subject, and only initial research is now being done regarding whether the oceans can or will absorb much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The fact that it hasn't yet apparently started to happen is probably a bad sign. IF this was a process that was going to save us from our foolish behaviors, it would seem logical that the oceans should be absorbing huge amounts already, from the massive increases that we have caused to the atmosphere over the past 100 years. We can detect that SOME has been absorbed, but the fact that the atmospheric CO2 content is measured to be rapidly rising seems to indicate that that is not something we can count on for hundreds or thousands of years.
This is likely to even become more complicated, because if the oceans rise in temperature by just a single degree Centigrade, the waters of the oceans will then only be able to hold a tremendously amount LESS of carbon dioxide. That means that if and when the oceans warm by even a degree or two, there may be an entirely new and unexpected source of carbon dioxide getting added to the atmosphere, that which had previously been dissolved in the COLD ocean waters.
In fact, the complete situation is actually worse than this might seem to suggest. We will later discuss what happens when organic materials (both plants and animals) die and decompose, where the glucose and other carbohydrate components each decompose into the original water and carbon dioxide. So, even should plants multiply or increase in productivity to be able to handle the greater amounts of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere, when those plants and animals later die, they then release those greater amounts. This is bad. Very bad. In other words, they might represent a TEMPORARY way of removing a good deal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but within a year or two, all of it will be added back in. There may actually NOT be any actual way to reduce the total amount of carbon dioxide in the biosphere / atmosphere except for a very short period of time.
This describes a probably terminal situation for all life on Earth, as no animals or humans could survive long without food, meaning the immense amount of glucose created by photosynthesis. If it is actually likely that the Earth will get up to that 93°F equilibrium temperature by 2170, then it seems a near certainty that nearly all major plants on Earth would die, and then all animal and nearly all human life would end within months of the elimination of the food supply. (see citations in the next presentation on this) A very small number of humans might actually be able to survive, for a while, if food could be manufactured from petroleum or natural gas, and if any of those resources still existed. But essentially, this scenario is describing the entire end of all higher forms of life on Earth, and possibly in only 140 years or so. If THIS is the path that we are on, then it is CRITICAL that we try to do anything and everything we can to try to enable life on Earth to continue.
NOTE: There have been quite a number of truly vicious critics of me for this text! They admit this reasoning seems sound, but then insist that I must STOP immediately in "scaring people" with these concepts! I have started to come to write back that they would probably have made an excellent Captain of the Titanic, in making sure that the band kept playing and drinks continued to be served! Apparently, if someone cannot see a solution to some problem, it is better to simply stick one's head in the ground and try to ignore it, and CERTAINLY not tell anyone else! I find that attitude amazing. If it were just one or two such critics, it would be one thing. But there seem to be a LOT of people who do not want to hear any bad news! Wow!
By the way, in a bigger picture, a FEW types of plants would survive, while essentially all animals would be gone. Over future millions of years, those plants would grow and multiply, all the while consuming some of the massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and gradually again creating the supply of oxygen. At that point, millions of years from now, maybe simple animals will again start to develop, since there would then be plenty of food (plants) and oxygen again. It is sort of ironic that we humans, assuming that we can accomplish anything, have done such damage that the planet might be set back countless millions of years, (already!), in just fifty years or so of rampant burning of everything we can find! Maybe Technology is NOT the impressive advance that we have claimed it to be! It is not very easy for a Physicist to say such a thing!
There are people who are feeling proud of themselves in telling people to "plant a tree". Yes, theoretically, that is an excellent idea! But practically, well, let's look at some numbers!
Let's first consider planting cropland. Pick Indiana, where about 12.5 million acres of crop land is planted each year. A single acre is 43,560 square feet. On a really clear summer day around noon, roughly 300 Btu/hr/square foot of sunlight comes in. Given that that changes through the day, and it is not always clear, we are going to use an average of five such hours each day, or 1,500 Btu of sunlight energy coming in each day for each square foot. Since the acre has 43,560 square feet, that means we would have an average daily available energy of about 65 million Btus, for our acre of land.
Plants and chlorophyll and photosynthesis is not a very efficient process, generally only around 1% efficient note 2. Therefore, we have about 650,000 Btu of energy which will actually drive the photosynthesis in all those corn or soybean plants. We can convert this into 164,000 Kilocalories of energy. We know that the photosynthesis process described in the note above requires 686 Kcal/mole of the reaction, in other words, with that incoming energy for our acre, we are able to process 240 moles of the reaction each day. The molecular weight of the glucose molecule is 180, so 240 moles is equal to 43,200 grams, or about 95 pounds of actual growth each growing day. (Only a fraction of this is the actual crop that is sold, with most of this growth being the stem, roots, leaves, etc.) (A paper by Allen, L.H., E.C. Bisbal, K.J. Boote, and P.H. Jones. 1991. Soybean dry-matter allocation under subambient and superambient levels of carbon dioxide. Agronomy Journal 83(5):875-883, showed that soybean growth rate at the current 390 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was around 14 grams/square meter/day, which is around 125 pounds of actual growth each growing day. We have chosen to use a more conservative value in these calculations.)
We know that our acre can process 240 moles of that reaction every day. On the other side of the equation, we have six CO2 molecules which have a combined molecular weight of 264. Therefore, each growing day, we must be using up 240 * 264 or 63,360 grams of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or 140 pounds. In a whole growing season, our acre can then remove about 10 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We can now multiply by ALL the cropland in Indiana, the 12.5 million acres, and find that all that cropland in Indiana can remove about 125 million tons of carbon dioxide in a good growing year.
That might sound impressive, and it is, but it is only about 1/64 of the EXTRA carbon dioxide that we humans add to the atmosphere each year. In other words, considering the contribution of an entire farming State, the consumption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is nowhere close to making a dent in our global warming accomplishments.
A large, 50-year-old, mature oak tree can produce roughly a pound of new growth each summer day, roughly 150 pounds in a growing season. We can convert that to grams (68,000) and do the same calculations we did above, to find that in a whole year growing season, that tree can process about 380 moles of that photosynthesis process. Doing the rest of the calculations, we can see that tree removes about 220 pounds of carbon dioxide PER YEAR from the atmosphere. So even though it is an admirable idea, "planting a tree" won't make much difference, even 50 years later once it is grown up! If you planted a MILLION trees, then the total effect would be to remove 220 million pounds or about 0.00011 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Even that is not much of a difference, is it?
Nearer the Equator, one acre can remove more than 10 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, because their growth season is longer than in temperate climates. Close to 15 tons of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by each average acre is realistic. Since 640 acres is a square mile, this means an average square mile of vegetation likely removes around 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.
This first seems to imply that if we simply planted an additional 800,000 square miles of vegetation on Earth, we could enable that cropland to absorb (800,000 * 10,000) around 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide. First, 800,000 square miles is HUGE! Roughly 1/4 the entire area of the whole United States. Second, Nature has already figured out how to grow field grasses and forests and weeds nearly anywhere where growth is possible. There really are relatively few areas where we could plant new vegetation where Nature has not already tried to do so.
But thirdly, even if we could do this, it would only represent a single year's "solution". AFTER that year, when those grasses and weeds died and decomposed, that decomposition of that even greater amount of vegetation would NATURALLY send even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Therefore, the following year, an ADDITIONAL 800,000 square miles of new vegetation would have to be planted and cultivated.
Therefore, such solutions as planting trees or crops or other plants IS valid, but ONLY as long as the plants stay alive. Once they die, all the benefit they provided all totally disappears. Once carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere, it pretty much stays there, for thousands or millions of years. We can TEMPORARILY remove a lot of it, with plants by photosynthesis, but that is not actually any long term solution.
Because of this, even this seemingly promising approach seems of little value except in the very short term.
These plants are incredibly small, nearly invisible, but in some parts of the ocean, they are numerous beyond imagination. When really thriving, there can be ten million of them in every liter (about a quart) of seawater! Collectively, they are able to produce around 1 gram of organic carbon per square meter of ocean surface per day. Since most such active growth regions are in Equatorial locations, that production can continue 365 days a year. Let's calculate!
A gram of organic carbon refers to the carbon portion of the glucose molecule, or a total molecular weight of the carbon in glucose of 6 * 12 or 72. This means that a square meter of such thriving ocean can process 1/72 mole of the photosynthesis reaction, and that the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere is (6 * (12+16+16)) or 264/72 grams/square meter per day. To compare this with our figures above, we can consider 4047 square meters (one acre) and for a year. This is 5.4 million grams, or about 6 tons of carbon dioxide per acre!
This then seems to suggest about the only logical possibility that I can think of to deal with our man-made global warming problem.
Imagine making a BIG water tank, BIG! Say the size of the entire State of Massachusetts, 8,000 square miles big! If we make that tank relatively shallow, where phytoplankton all over it can thrive, then we should be able to meet the figures above, of 6 tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year. That is 3800 tons per square mile of the tank, or a total of 30 million tons of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere, each year. Of course, we would need around 670 such tanks to remove 20 billions tons of carbon dioxide that we are annually dumping into the atmosphere. That total area of such tanks would be around 2/3 the area of the entire United States of America! It could not be in America, anyway, because of the short growing season, and it would need to be more tropical. But maybe some really huge tanks like that could be built in central Australia, where virtually nothing now lives. Australia might not even miss losing 2 million square miles (of its 3 million square mile area)! Another possibility might be building the tanks on the regions of Brazil where the rain forests were destroyed to clear for farming, but which were then abandoned a few years later.
I admit that it is a somewhat ridiculous idea, but it is at least a credible possibility to consider. It also has some big maintenance problems, mostly regarding the rapid evaporation of the water. But at least it is a concept that has the necessary scale of actually representing a solution regarding credibly removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
There is actually one side benefit to this idea! Those phytoplankton grow best when they have easy access to nitrogen, phosphorus and several trace elements. These elements are always an extensive part of conventional municipal disposal! In fact, when and where such municipal sewage runoff and/or farm runoff has gone into the ocean, there is often an "algal bloom" where these plankton go wild for a while! This process causes a very undesirable Red Tide which is a direct result of pollution runoff. The algae also often get so plentiful that they suffocate all local fish and kill off other plants. I am suggesting that rather than allowing such sewage and agricultural runoff to go into the oceans, why not BUY that material as food for these phytoplankton in the tanks? Intentionally CAUSING algal blooms in this separated, controlled environment?
These comments make it clear why this could not simply be done in the open ocean. It would definitely work, and pretty much the only action then needed then would be to collect municipal sewage and agricultural runoff waste and dump it in a specific part of the ocean. That would work, but it would create the potential of an even bigger problem, of a runaway growth of phytoplankton, possibly worldwide, which might cause other ocean plants and maybe ocean animals to be exterminated as a result.
Now, keep in mind that this might seem potentially promising, but it again only represents a short-term solution. As the phytoplankton die or are eaten and those fishes die, the carbon dioxide would again be released from the glucose and carbohydrates into the atmosphere (and oceans). So, even such a bizarre solution as this would certainly require annual increases in the areas committed to such algae. There is simply not enough available room on land for such enormous tanks, so the ocean would certainly eventually wind up being the venue for such experimentation. Which is frightening in itself. However, if it should be found to be the only possible survival course for mankind beyond around 150 years from now, I wonder if people will try it out of desperation.
However, we need to consider a somewhat bigger picture regarding the Earth's atmosphere. YOU breathe about twelve times every minute, and your average breath involves about 0.5 liter of air. That is 6 liters of exhaled air every minute, 360 liters/hour, 8,600 liters/day or over 3,000,000 liters of exhaled breath every year. Your exhaled breath contains a consistent 4.4% of carbon dioxide (the partial pressure establishes this). This results in YOU exhaling around 275 kg or 600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year! Since there are currently around 6 billion of us humans living, we collectively therefore exhale a total of around TWO BILLION TONS of carbon dioxide every year! This is nearly comparable to the "dreadful" 15 to 20 billion tons that our technology adds!
Our exhaled breath does NOT contribute to global warming, though, because the time interval between the carbon being REMOVED from the atmosphere (when plants did their photosynthesis thing) until we ate parts of the plants and eventually exhaled the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere is fairly quickly. We BRIEFLY "sequester" a little bit of carbon in our bodies, but then release it again fairly soon. This is VERY different than where ancient plants sequestered carbon from the atmosphere and then died and became part of some fossil fuel such as petroleum, coal, or natural gas. When we burn those materials, we release the carbon dioxide that was sequestered over many millions of years in just a period of months, and THAT is the problem we are causing!
It turns out that there are even far larger things going on! If one totals up all the rotting and decaying dead trees and leaves and grasses world-wide, and the decay of the dead animals and all their processes, that total is far larger than the scale of these things we have been considering! In fact, all that decaying (oxidation) and the oxidation of rock materials involved in erosion, rusting and corrosion of some metals, and respiration of animals total a NATURAL contribution to the atmosphere of around 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.
This happens to well balance out the removal of around 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year by the photosynthesis of plants (in fixing about 100 billion tons of carbon into glucose molecules, or in forming about 250 billion tons of glucose, world-wide, each year.) (You can confirm most of this fairly easily. We already discussed that the carbon part of the glucose represents 6 * 12 or 72 molecular weight of carbon. The entire glucose is 6 * 12 + 12 * 1 + 6 * 16 or 180 total molecular weight. That proportion, 180/72 is 2.5, meaning that there is 250 billion tons of glucose created when it contains 100 billion tons of fixed carbon in it. Up above, we determined that 6 molecules of carbon dioxide has a total molecular weight of 264, which basically agrees with the round number of 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide used up. The six oxygen molecules produced have a total molecular weight of 192, which also tells us that around 260 billion tons of oxygen is produced world-wide by all plants, each year.)
With only about 3,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere total, this indicates that all that carbon dioxide tends to pass through the Carbon Cycle and photosynthesis about every ten years or so.
In the SHORT-TERM, then, the fact is that we are adding an extra 15 to 20 billion tons every year, and another billion tons from our breathing, we are definitely fouling up the equilibrium situation, as we are all now discussing.
Yes, we humans are therefore adding around 15 to 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide to a total supply of around 3,000 billion tons. THIS is what causes the great (bad) effects of global warming and the rest.
But the entire Carbon Cycle in our atmosphere had evolved over many thousands of years to be able to use up around 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. Essentially, what has happened is that just enough plants have grown to process that 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide which is available. If more plants try to grow, they each do not quite have as much carbon dioxide to feed on (in a longer-term) and their number will lessen to an equilibrium number. Ditto for if too few plants were living, that there would be strong incentive for more to then really grow. What WE humans have done is to require it to process around 308 billion tons instead of 300 billion!
When the problem is looked at this way, it might first appear to be minor and easy to solve. But that is not really true. Given adequate time, the Earth's atmosphere could evolve to being able to process 308 billion tons per year. It seems likely that the greater concentration of carbon dioxide in the air should EVENTUALLY enable many plants to thrive even better than now, and the added warmth (within reason) may do the same. In this case, if the world-wide productivity of plants would (NATURALLY) increase by just six percent, then the current consumption of 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide would increase to 320 billion tons and a new equilibrium situation would occur.
Notice that this has two central effects. The average temperature of the Earth would be hotter, at the new Equilibrium temperature, and there would necessarily have to be a lot more plants than today, or the existing plants would have to grow better and faster than today.
No one knows how fast such a natural response would or could occur. As to trees, the substantial length of the plant's lifetime would probably cause some delays. For all land plants, it figures that as air temperatures rose, the plants would eventually start producing more seeds, such that the potential would then exist that more plants might grow. However, hotter temperatures also mean that evaporation of water from the soil would be far faster, so the soils would commonly be less moist, adding a new difficulty regarding seeds being able to grow.
The Phytoplankton in the oceans would probably not react very quickly at all. It would probably only significantly begin after the ocean temperature had risen by a number of degrees, probably meaning decades.
The question is, will that be quickly enough to avert the totally terminal situation of Situation 1 discussed above? No one really knows. No one can yet even make a decent guess! And it would not actually be that great of a new benefit anyway, because we would certainly still be dealing with a world that may be 35°F hotter than today. But at least, potentially survivable.
It is clear that plants will not start massively increasing in growth patterns until they experience a really convincing change in the atmosphere. That probably means an increase in the carbon dioxide and an increase in the temperature. Unfortunately, there is no obvious way to calculate just how much warmer the world would have to get for this 3% increase in all plant productivity. If it is, for example, 10°F, then the average temperature of the Earth would rise by that amount, overshoot it to some extent, and then naturally stop rising, because of the new excess production of plants and photosynthesis. There would then be a new balance of 320 billion tons of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere and 320 billion tons removed by photosynthesis of plants.
IF it turns out that the Earth can make such an adaptation within maybe 50 years, then it will start growing more trees and grasses and phytoplankton and it will take care of SOME OF the added carbon dioxide we have added without spectacular effects. That would be a wonderful thing! We would not really have to do anything at all, and the Earth and its atmosphere would adapt to the new conditions. Humans could all move to Antarctica to live, or maybe dig deep caves to live in to deal with the intense heat in some areas like southern Canada. And then figure out all new approaches to government and technology.
However, as noted above, there is NO indication that the substantial increases in carbon dioxide of a hundred years ago has (yet) had any effect at all on massive increases in the growth of plants. If there has been some such effect, it is really important now to know how large the effect is. If it turns out that the world can only react over thousands of years, then we are all doomed, as described in situation 1 above.
I have not been able to find any good scientific research regarding the productivity of phytoplankton with various temperature changes in the ocean environment, so there seems to be no research evidence to suggest how great a temperature change might have to occur (if it even can) to produce a 3% increase in phytoplankton productivity. The same seems true regarding land plants, field grasses, trees, crops.
It seems urgently important for such research to now be done. Once we would have such research findings, it might then be possible to estimate how Nature is likely to react to our loading it up with so much excess carbon dioxide!
But, along THIS line of reasoning, the future prospects might not be as dire as otherwise seems likely. we really need to (quickly) know which of the two different courses we are headed on! One is an absolute train-wreck, where all life on Earth might become exterminated by things we have already done, and frighteningly soon. The other would involve rather severe alterations of nearly everything on Earth, but with a very reduced human survival nearly assured.
The important consideration seems to be the extreme rapidity that we have been causing these changes. Given enough time, Nature could certainly adapt, by some natural method similar to Concept 2. But the distressing part is that we may have caused such rapid changes that the planet will not be able to react soon enough to keep all or most plants from dying. I do not see how it is possible to determine whether we have done our damage so quickly that Nature will not be able to properly react, and we are all doomed, or whether we have still remained in a change-rate which Nature can deal with, where Situation 2 and extended existence might be assured for all of us.
However, this whole line of reasoning is tempered by the fact that once more plants were alive, then more plants would die! The Natural contribution of carbon dioxide would therefore also rise, and probably very quickly. This line of reasoning seems to have some potential, but much of that is canceled out by the fact that all those additional new plants will necessarily die and decay themselves, and therefore return that additional carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
So even this approach might not have any actual merit.
A conceivable alternative might be to "sequester" ( a very popular buzz word these days!) dead organic matter somewhere where it cannot easily decompose. Like maybe haul billions of tons of it to pile it all up on Antarctica! It is always so cold there that even the mesophilic bacteria that start the decomposition of organic material can virtually not do anything. This idea could possibly be the ONLY one which might even permit the possibility of existence of humans and animals on Earth beyond around 160 years from now! But consider the logistics of such a plan! We would need to haul 20 billion tons of such dead organic matter to Antarctica, every year! Consider that the Berlin Airlift moved a total of around 2 million tons of material over more than a year period, and even that involved aircraft nearly constantly landing and taking off. We are talking here of an amount of material transfer to be piled up on Antarctica that is over 4,000 times as much weight per month. And probably far beyond that because most of the dead organic matter would still likely contain a lot of water within it, so maybe twice that total number of flights would be required. Ships might help, but they could only get such material to the shoreline, and then trucks would have to haul it all far inland (at least a thousand miles). We would be talking about over 800,000,000 full semi-truckloads of material to haul every year, across Antarctica. Imagine the fuel needed for all those trucks and airplanes and ships! Those fuel needs probably make this a non-starter as a solution.
I have done some brief calculations on hundreds of thousands of hydrogen-filled zeppelin-style airships, IF the winds went in the right directions (which they don't!) to minimize the fuel consumption. These would be unmanned, computer controlled machines that would take maybe a month for each trip, and still they would not carry enough material to do much good.
However, if Situation 2 is the operative one, then maybe we COULD do some things that would have effects. If we planted around a billion additional acres of ANY kinds of plants (in or near the tropics would be best), we might be able to cancel out the ongoing increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is around 1.5 million square miles. If we could plant an additional TWO billion acres, we might even be able to accomplish some reduction! THAT would be around 3 million square miles, the entire area of the United States! But when we note that all the farm land cultivated each year in all of the United States is less than 1/3 billion acres, we start to again see the scale of the problem. It would not be very easy to plant around six times the entire US crops of all products! But if it involves the possibility that life can continue beyond about 140 years from now or not, then we have no choice but we may have to try! But, again, each year, we would then have to plant even more!
There may be another way that we might be able to improve the situation. This, again, may be an endeavor too large for us to actually accomplish. But we have talked about a grand total of around 300 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that is NOW processed every year by the existing plants. Maybe our best hope of survival might be in trying to "collect and store" rotting and decaying plants, animals and other organic materials. If we could somehow sequester a hundred billion tons of such material, and somehow either stop the oxidation or separate it all from oxygen, we might remove some of that natural carbon dioxide from getting formed in that oxidation/rotting process.
Again, if the quantities were small, there are obvious technological possibilities, encapsulating in plastic, or in concrete. But to SAY "collect and sequester 100 billion tons of such decaying matter" is a lot easier than actually doing it! Again, the scale of the problem is truly spectacular. (such an amount would require over TEN BILLION full truckloads!)
How much concrete would be needed to encase all that organic material to keep it from being able to interact with atmospheric oxygen to decay? You can certainly see that it would involve an astounding amount of concrete.
About the only known industrial process that seems to have the remotest chance of sequestering carbon dioxide was first invented around 1860, called the Solvay Process. That process uses relatively little outside energy, and only requires carbon dioxide and ammonia, and seriously salty water, and the ammonia is returned at the end of the process to be used again. Sodium Bicarbonate is produced, which settles out of the water-based process to be collected. The Solvay Process has been used for over a hundred years and it responsible for billions of pounds of sodium bicarbonate (and then sodium carbonate) worldwide each year. That sounds impressive, but if we were to use that process to even just process the EXTRA carbon dioxide we are adding to the atmosphere every year, we are talking about 20 billion tons or 40 TRILLION pounds! The current worldwide Solvay Processes would have to be multiplied by several million times, just to deal with what we are adding, and not even doing anything to reduce the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere. Again, on a smaller scale, it would be an excellent possibility, but on the scale that would be needed to have any effect here, we just do not have that level of capability.
I have a dark suspicion that maybe the only hope humanity has of survival beyond maybe 2070 might be in a surprising field of research. IF genetic researchers could accomplish either of two things, it might represent a credible possibility toward survival. (1) If genetic botanists could find some ways to enable plants to virtually never die, they would then never release all that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, meaning that we might be able to achieve an artificially low level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. (2) If those same genetic botanists could alter the cellulose that plants are nearly all made of (made initially from glucose) such that it would not decompose so rapidly or at all, it might also permit us to develop an artificially low atmospheric level. However, if either such research even worked, it easily might later cause equally horrendous consequences! Plants that never died would not allow room for any other plant seeds to ever grow. The whole point of seeds might quickly disappear, and plant life might become very tenuous. If dead plant remains did not decay and rot, then farmers everywhere would not benefit from plowing under last year's crops, and many other possible bad effects. However, whether we humans generally realize it or not, we are grasping as straws now toward trying to find SOME way that advanced life on Earth might be able to continue. All the while, incredibly rich corporations continue to dig up and sell the very fossil fuels that are causing that end to loom nearer and nearer. It would be nice to think that there was some sort of logic in that, but it seems absolutely absent. It certainly appears to be a single-minded pursuit of the greatest and quickest financial profits. I wonder if anyone will ever regret such things?
This data might provide hopeful possibilities. It seems to suggest that soybeans at the current 390 ppm atmospheric grow at the rate of around 14 grams/square meter/day, while soybeans early in the 20th century when it was 320 ppm grew at around 12.5 grams/square meter/day. That suggests a rather rapid response by plants in increasing their growth, and therefore their carbon dioxide consumption. So the fact that we have done so much to screw up the atmosphere might still be in the range of what the Earth's Biosphere might be able to respond to quickly.
What this would mean is that IF we humans would stop burning massive amounts of fossil fuels and putting so much extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the plants might be able to increase their growth rates quickly enough to avoid the worse of the possible contingencies mentioned above.
Of course, this scenario still has that later effect that the increased/larger/more plants will eventually die and decay and release all that carbon dioxide that we had briefly managed to remove from the atmosphere. So the effort would necessarily have to ramp up every coming year as we continue to keep adding more and more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Still, it seems like a credible direction to contemplate.
This is interesting because it changes the focus on what we should be trying to do! In recent months (early 2007), we have tended to focus on trying to REMOVE carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as the Earth Challenge Prize promotion. Clearly, what we really need to be dealing with then is the massive continuing growth of how much fossil fuels we are burning, a somewhat different area of focus!
In addition, it seems that the problem of trying to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by any human-driven effect involving machinery, necessarily would involve requiring too much (artificial, fossil-fuel sourced) power to drive such machinery, but also that the scale of the problem is a million times larger than anything we realistically can confront. Instead, it seems certain that if humanity and animals have any realistic hope for existence beyond around 2170, it will necessarily involve some natural process. And, quite possibly, ramping up the attempts at applying such approaches every year that we continue to be capable of burning fossil fuels. The fact that the world seems certain to entirely run out of petroleum and natural gas by around the year 2030, might actually be a good thing! It might then allow any approaches that are found by then to actually be working at actually REDUCING the atmosphere's concentration of carbon dioxide rather than simply trying to slow down the increases that we are causing! What a horrible situation for us humans to now find ourselves in. We are allegedly "custodians" of the Earth. We have done such a lousy job of that that the probabilities are already extremely high that we have already exterminated ourselves, as well as all other animals! Some Custodians!
The Earth's albedo (reflectance) to the Sun's energy is around 34% as indicated in the first presentation. Imagine if there were some way that we might somehow increase that albedo a little, maybe up to 36%. The effect (as calculable by the equations in the first presentation) would be a net reduction of incoming energy from 66% to 64%, a significant amount of energy (around 4 * 1015 watts, around 8,000 times as much energy as ALL the electricity used in the United States!). (That much change would result in a reduction of the Earth's equilibrium temperature by around 3.9°F., as can be confirmed with the equations of the first page of this presentation.) Could something like this be done? That amount of change might not be enough to really eliminate all the problems, but it might enable the persistent existence of plants and animals and people on Earth.
The most logical possibility that occurred to me is regarding the fact that our Government says there are around 8.5 million miles of roads in the US, with the majority of them being paved with asphalt. There are also an impressive amount of area of parking lots which are all asphalt, particularly in and near cities, as well as a surprisingly large number of flat-roofed buildings that have asphalt-based roofs.
This all indicates that there are well over 100,000 square miles of area of the United States that is currently covered by Asphalt, in pavement in highways and roads, in pavement in parking lots, in the Asphalt roofing on countless flat-roofed buildings, etc. Asphalt happens to be black and it has an extremely high absorbtivity of solar energy, generally described as being around 0.95 or 95%. So, imagine if all that asphalt were somehow changed in color to extremely reflective white, for example. What effect would that have? We can convert the 100,000 square miles into square meters of area, and multiply it by the 893 watts of solar energy coming in per square meter, to get around 2.3 * 1014 watts, as being the maximum incoming radiation energy from the Sun. But since the Earth rotates, the actual average energy rate is around 6 * 1013 watts, which actually hits the Asphalt surfaces of the United States.
For comparison, this is around 120 times the TOTAL amount of electricity energy that we use up in the US! A significant amount of energy.
And if we could change the color of all that asphalt so that it reflects maybe 85% of that incoming solar energy rather than the 5% it currently reflects, that simple action of changing the color of all that asphalt could eliminate around 5 * 1013 watts of (heat) energy from even entering our planet's ecosystem! The fact that the light is REFLECTED means it stays in the same wavelengths, including visible and ultraviolet, which could generally pass easily OUTWARD through our atmosphere, without having any global warming effects. A really good thing!
And being the removal of around 100 times the energy of all the electricity we use up (which all becomes heat after we use it), or around 50 times the amount of heat energy that electric powerplants throw off in the process of making that electricity, this would certainly be a wonderful step in the right direction.
Counteracting the massive energy dumping into the atmosphere of electric powerplants and much more, a very wonderful accomplishment!
How hard would it be to do such a thing? Maybe fairly easy! Consider the traffic markings on the highways! White lines and yellow lines are EVERYWHERE! True, some are merely painted on, but many are heat-melted (thermoplastic) into becoming part of the roadway. So imagine that instead of a four-inch wide line, the white line now at the edge of every roadway was made far wider, to cover the entire surface of the highway. (Maybe the line markings could then be black or some contrasting color.) The materials used for those lines have already been fully tested for not making the roads too slippery or wearing out too quickly, or otherwise detrimentally affecting the asphalt surface. So such a change could be done virtually next week!
But, sadly, even this would only make a tiny dent in the immense problem of global warming. Using the energy equilibrium calculations of the first page of this presentation, we can calculate the equilibrium temperature of the Earth, with this effort at reflecting so much more of the Sun's energy out into space. It turns out to be disappointingly puny. The change in the entire Earth's reflectance would be very small, and the calculated reduction on the equilibrium temperature would only be around 0.05°F.
We should certainly do such things, but we clearly need to do far more as well. This is a good indication of how huge the problem is! For us to change the color of EVERY highway and road in America, and every parking lot, and every flat rooftop, in having the benefit around a hundred times better than the total amount of all energy dumped into the atmosphere related to our usage of electricity, STILL only has such a miniscule effect in reducing the equilibrium temperature. It is amazing.
IF there is a solution, beyond completely stopping all usage of petroleum, natural gas and coal, it will clearly have to be huge beyond comprehension.
The chemical bond strengths between atoms are: O-O 58 kcal/mole; (usually) C-O 93.5 kcal/mole; O-H 110 Kcal/mole. It is possible to then analyze the equation of the chemical reaction above. An H2O molecule has two O-H bonds, and there are six molecules involved, so the first term in the photosynthesis equation involves 110 * 2 * 6 or 1320 Kcal/mole of binding energy in those molecules. We have a similar situation for the CO2, except that those bonds are double (covalent) bonds, so we have 93.5 * 2 * 2 * 6 or 2244 Kcal/mole. So on the right side, we have a total binding energy of all the molecules of (1320 + 2244 or) 3564 Kcal/mole. On the left side, we have that complex molecule, where we can add up all the separate binding energies to get 2182 Kcal/mole for the binding energy of that molecule; and the O2 has a covalent bonding so we have 58 * 2 * 6 or 696 Kcal/mole. This gives a left hand side total of (2182 + 696 or) 2878 Kcal/mole. The difference of 686 Kcal/mole is the "free energy" which solar energy has to provide to drive the chemical reaction of photosynthesis. Or, similarly, it is the amount of energy that gets released when the bonds are broken in the other direction in an animal's respiration or decomposition process.
Efficiency of Photosynthesis
In real situations, the light level is often too low or too high for highest efficiency, and plant growth can be inhibited by water or nutrient or heat stresses. The result is that the net average of all land plants is around 1%. Ocean plankton can achieve a slightly lower overall efficiency.
It is well established, from numerous published sources, that the total net primary production (NPP) of the total mass of carbon fixed annually by photosynthesis of all earth plants is around 1 * 1011 metric tons of Carbon / year. From the above photosynthesis figures, this corresponds to a total amount of energy stored in that glucose per year of 4 * 1021 Joules, or 1.1 * 1015 kiloWatt-hours / year. This is around 250 times the total amount of electricity used by all of America in a year, or nearly 40 times the total amount of all types of energy used by all humans throughout the world in a year.
Much of the information in this presentation was presented in an
earlier web-page (in June 2004), but without the comprehensive research
basis, in my page at:
Global Warming Effects of Carbon Dioxide and Sea Levels Rising as Polar Ice Melts
I was an irrelevantly very minor speaker regarding the first Earth Day in April 1970 where I expressed primitive concerns on environmental issues (and was essentially totally ignored!) Even as a Nuclear Physicist, over the following decades, no people in decision-making positions ever took my concerns seriously. But back then, even I did not realize how dire the whole situation was. It was only after I had done the careful and thorough "earth-heating" calculation, a dozen times, that I finally realized, around January 2007, that we truly are a species that may be in the process of a self-extermination. I did the math a dozen times because I kept insisting that I must have made some error, because I did NOT want to see that depressing result.
However, we collectively have six billion minds. If many of them come to realize that we may be facing total doom, maybe some who are far smarter than me, might have time to discover some way to save the planet and mankind. I hope so.
C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago