Did you know that carbon is the foundation of all life on Earth? All living things are made of carbon. Carbon is part of the air, ocean, rocks, clouds and trees. It is also found in our atmosphere, where it is attached to oxygen in a gas called carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon is essential because it makes all life on our planet possible. Carbon helps regulate temperature, is a key ingredient in food production and provides energy to fuel our global economy. Carbon is our blueprint for existence. Sadly, we don’t always treat carbon well. In this article, we’re going to look at how the all-important carbon cycle works, how it’s been affected by global warming and how that, in turn, affects plant life.
What is the carbon cycle?
Firstly, let’s discuss precisely what the carbon cycle is and why it’s so important. The carbon cycle describes the process by which carbon atoms continually travel back and forth between the atmosphere and Earth. Carbon does not sit still – it is always on the move! Although the amount of carbon in the system remains stable as Earth and the atmosphere form a closed environment, where the carbon resides is always in flux. As mentioned earlier, most carbon is stored in rocks, the ocean, the atmosphere and living organisms; these are the storehouses through which carbon cycles. The carbon they contain is released back into the atmosphere through a variety of mechanisms, for example, when volcanoes erupt, organisms die, fires blaze and fossil fuels are burned.
How is the carbon cycle affected by humans?
The carbon cycle has already changed significantly because humans are moving large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. As such,we are playing a significant role in the carbon cycle, mainly through adding an increased amount of carbon into the atmosphere. We are predominantly doing this via fossil fuels, like coal and oil, being burned. Not to mention when humans get rid of forests by burning or cutting down trees (primarily for cattle grazing). As a result of these compounded actions, ice cores now show that there is far more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has been at any point in history over the last 800,000 years. But here is where the story gets complicated. Without greenhouse gases, such as methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons and carbon dioxide, Earth would be an inhospitable and frozen world. Carbon dioxide, in particular, functions by trapping heat in the atmosphere. It lets sunlight pass through the atmosphere, but it also prevents heat from leaving the atmosphere. By increasing the amount of greenhouse gas trapped in the atmosphere, Earth is heating up. Current research estimates that permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere holds 1,672 billion tons of organic carbon. If just 10% of this permafrost were to thaw, it would release enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise temperatures on Earth by an additional 0.7 degrees Celsius!
How is the carbon cycle linked to global warming?
As mentioned above, the greenhouse effect itself is a naturally occurring phenomenon that makes Earth warm enough to support animal and plant life. Without greenhouse gases, Earth would be a much colder place. Carbon dioxide, in particular, is an essential factor in the greenhouse effect, because it alone helps the atmosphere retain much-needed heat generated by the sun. However, as with many things in life, too much of a good thing is not always best! Too much carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere has the negative effect of causing Earth to become too hot. This trend is nothing new. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have steadily risen by as much as 30% since the 19th Century (aka the Industrial Revolution). This is the direct result of adverse human activities over the last 150 years, such as burning vast amounts of fossil fuels and rampant deforestation. Since carbon seems to be connected to everything that matters to us –our climate, our bodies, our ecosystems, our planet – it makes sense for humankind to face this looming problem and start fixing it. The problem is that carbon dioxide spends a long time – up to many centuries – in the atmosphere, so even if people stopped adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere today, Earth would continue to warm. So now we have to find a Plan B, how can we make sensible ‘carbon decisions’ that will positively impact our future?
How does global warming affect plant life?
Along with increasing the temperature and humidity on Earth, carbon dioxide also extends the growing season. Unfortunately, warmer temperatures unduly stress plants. What’s more, with a longer, warmer growing season comes the need for more water. Unfortunately, water-stressed plants are more susceptible to fire and insects. In the far north and south of the globe, where an increase in global temperatures is having the most significant impact, the forests have already started to burn more frequently (recall the widespread bushfires in Australia earlier this year?). Plants are much more sensitively to temperature fluctuations than animals. And unlike their mobile friends, they are unable to move to a more attractive location when the going gets tough. How plants are affected by increased heat is many and varied; for example, when temperatures rise, plants grow taller to cool themselves off. At the same time, their leaves became narrower and more spaced apart. All of this results in their becoming more unstable and susceptible to outside forces (i.e., rain). This is particularly noticeable during grain harvesting, with the sub-part plants producing less biomass. These are just some of the ways in which global warming is affecting plant life. As crops continue to wilt and die, the world’s ever-increasing population will find it harder and harder to fill its belly. Whether you’re interested in the carbon cycle and global warming out of concern for the next generation or a desire to protect your plant-based food delivery, what’s clear is that an urgent change in humankind’s lifestyle habits is required. The future will be bleak for everyone, rich or poor, if we continue to disregard science and maintain our rampant greenhouse-gas producing ways. Here are some easy everyday ways you can play your part and cut back on global warming: power your home with renewable energy, reduce water waste, drive a fuel-efficient or hybrid car, upcycle or repair goods instead of buying new items, invest in energy-efficient appliances and cut back on your meat consumption and eat a plant-based diet.