Dear Mr President: another message from across the Pond
Posted on 28 February 2017 by John Mason
The Carbon Cycle in 49 tweets
There seem to be a fair number of communications being sent to the White House right now. On Thursday 23rd February, The Hill reported that "Climate sceptics ask Trump to withdraw from UN agency". The "agency" in question being the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the name behind the letter being Richard Lindzen and some 300 of his buddies. This bunch of 300 signatories has something of a resemblance to those behind a January 2016 letter to NOAA, again with Lindzen involvement. Both lists read like a who's who of the usual suspects. Some sections could almost have been copied and pasted from the DeSmogBlog database of climate misinformers.
That aside, Lindzen and friends have missed an important point in this instance. Trump's preferred style of written communication is The Tweet. A series of long paragraphs is unlikely to garner the desired attention. Sometimes, it is necessary to communicate to people in their own language.
So let's try just that, in explaining to President Trump the importance of and the hazards associated with Earth's Carbon Cycle. Unlike Twitter though, this post reads in a user-friendly way, from top to bottom. So, without as much as a smidgen of FAKE NEWS, here we go:
We want to tell you all about the Carbon Cycle. It helps make this planet great, so long as you don't MESS WITH IT.
The Carbon Cycle is in two parts. One fast & one slow. They are different things because of the stuff they involve.
The Fast Carbon Cycle involves plants. They feed on CO2 & make sugar. They keep it in their roots, stems and stuff.
In summer they use the sugar for energy. They grow so much. In winter they lie dormant. So lazy. Should be fired.
Lazy winter plants don't feed much so atmospheric CO2 goes up a bit. When they feed in summer, CO2 goes down a bit.
Feeding pattern makes the seasonal wobble on CO2 graphs. Up & down, up & down, year in year out. So like a heartbeat.
Some plants get eaten. Some burn in fires. When plants die they rot. Either way, carbon goes back to the atmosphere.
But new plants come up every spring, start feeding on CO2. It lets them grow. They RETAKE what their ancestors lost.
So the Fast Carbon Cycle is in balance. Look after those plants & it stays that way. Now for the Slow Carbon Cycle.
The Slow Carbon Cycle works over millions of years. Normally. But sometimes things happen that mess it up.
How it works: CO2 comes from volcanoes. A few 100 million tons every year. That's the main SOURCE. Apart from us.
Did you know, Mr President, that CO2 used to be called “carbonic acid gas”? Carbonic acid is CO2 dissolved in water.
In the air, CO2 dissolves in raindrops. They bring carbonic acid down to the ground. Supply is near-constant.
Carbonic acid is WEAK but it can slowly attack most rocks and minerals. It's slow but it always wins and they LOSE.
Limestone is a really big loser. Carbonic acid hits it so hard we end up with caves, stalactites & stuff.
Limestone caves, Nerja, southern Spain. Carbonic acid did all of this! Photo: author.
Carbonic acid also attacks other rocks like basalt. Basalt is full of calcium & magnesium & it's really common.
Carbonic acid attacks basalt everywhere, all the time. Happening on a massive scale. Process is called “weathering”.
Weathering forms solutions of calcium & magnesium. End up in rivers & then in the sea. Weak but a constant supply.
In the sea, calcium recombines with carbon & oxygen to make carbonate. Happens all on its own if chemistry's right.
Or you get critters living in the sea that make their own carbonate. They make all those beautiful shells.
Corals make carbonate homes to live in. These form wonderful coral reefs. They depend on it.
Carbonate slowly turns into limestone. New limestone is always forming. Not such a loser after all! Clever!
Limestone, with critters that made their own shells from calcium carbonate, in the Jurassic Period, around 180 million years ago. Limestone is constantly forming in the world's seas. Photo: author.
Leave all that limestone be & it stores that carbon. Stops it going any place else. Limestone is a carbon RESERVOIR.
Trillions of tonnes of carbon are stored in limestone. But what about the other big store? The fossil fuels?
I'm talking about all those dead plants. Some got buried & preserved. They are millions of years old. So ancient.
These two are the Walmarts of carbon storage. Volcanoes let the stuff out. Limestone and fossil fuels LOCK IT UP.
But what happens if the Slow Carbon Cycle gets messed with? That can work two ways. Geological record tells us this.
If weathering goes crazy it uses too much CO2. You get global cooling. How about plants? They like CO2.
Land plants only appeared a few hundred million years ago, when they evolved from the stuff that lived in water.
Once they appeared, land-plants evolved fast. Then they invaded. Soon, Earth was covered in forests. So beautiful.
The forests got to work on the plant-food in the air. They pulled down so much CO2. Its concentration fell and fell.
CO2-munchers: fossil ferns from the Carboniferous, over 300 million years ago. During the previous 100 million years, the land became afforested. Photo: author.
That carbon was taken out of the Slow Carbon Cycle & put right into the Fast Carbon Cycle, like it changed sides.
What happened next? It cooled. There was an ice-age. Same happened when first green plants showed up in the water.
Same happened when significant oxygen first featured in Earth's atmosphere. That was 2.3 billion years ago.
With oxygen in the air, methane came under attack. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, but it got oxidised. It LOST.
Each time these things happened there was cooling & ice-ages. So BAD. But what if you ADD more CO2 to the air?
If you mess with the Slow Carbon Cycle the other way you get global warming. Some volcanoes can accomplish this.
They must be really special volcanoes called Large Igneous Provinces. Not been one erupting for millions of years.
Large Igneous Province eruptions are so big. Make Mt St Helens look like July 4th fireworks in a suburban back-yard.
The Siberian Traps Large Igneous Province, main suspect for the end Permian mass extinction (96% of species lost). It's just huge (scale-bar bottom left).
Large Igneous Province eruptions last 1000s of years. Every century they can make 500-5,000 billion tonnes of CO2.
They mess with the Slow Carbon Cycle big time. They overload it. Worse than most asteroids. They are killers.
Large Igneous Provinces pollute. They wreck the climate. Caused some of the worst extinctions in Earth's history.
Mr President, we're making over 3,000 billion tonnes of CO2 per century. We're acting like a Large Igneous Province.
By burning oil, coal & gas at this rate, we are acting just like those special volcanoes. We really are. So sad!
That's why CO2 graphs have trends going up & up & up. Last time we had an atmosphere like this was in the Pliocene.
CO2 is a crazy gas. It multi-tasks. It's plant-food, a big greenhouse gas, it trashes rocks & it's an asphyxiant.
The Slow Carbon Cycle should NOT be messed with. We are messing with it right now, big time. That's BIG news.
Never before has a life-form messed with the Slow Carbon Cycle on purpose. Plants didn't do that. They just grow.
Dear Mr President, plants don't get to make decisions. They're just dumb. But we CAN make decisions. Whaddya say?
And finally, Mr President, I'll just leave this here. Arctic sea-ice volume, Jan 1979 to Jan 2017.
Everywhere you look, Mr President, the indicators point the same way. Now, who will you listen to?
The scientists who have worked on this stuff for nearly two centuries - or those guys who made their fortunes digging up the fossil fuels?
Think carefully. We don't have a spare Earth if we mess this one up.
Regards from across the Pond.
Graphic: Andy Lee Robinson.