Disrupting the carbon cycle has serious impacts on the planet. Something as “little” as offsetting the natural flow of carbon affects everything that is linked to carbon (in other words, all life on Earth). Let’s take a look at how pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the ocean impact the planet.
As far as scientists can tell, the amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have determined the planet’s climate and temperature in the past. That’s because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat from escaping the Earth. The lack of CO2 helps the Earth plunge into ice ages, and the surplus results in global warming. The graph above shows that the rise in temperature over the last century matches the rise in carbon dioxide. Most of the problems that are associated with “climate change” are directly related to global warming, such as the “The Big Four” impacts that are regularly assessed by the IPCC: rise in temperature, ice melt, disturbances in weather patterns across the planet, and sea level rise. Of the impacts I mentioned below, only ocean acidification isn’t caused directly by global warming – but like “The Big Four” impacts, it is caused by the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Ice melt is one of the most obvious indicators that the global temperature is rising. Scientists have measured the Arctic ice over time and have noticed a considerable decrease in thickness and extent of ice. Ice melt also affects all the life that depends on icy habitats – polar bears, foxes, migratory birds, puffins, Arctic flora, Arctic insects, and the entire ecosystem of the Arctic tundra. The loss or reduction of this ecosystem will have impacts all along the food chain, so it isn’t restricted to the Arctic.
Sea level rise is caused by ice melt and by rising temperatures. Did you know that water expands with heat? That means that if you warm an ocean, it will expand and its level will rise – this is caused thermal expansion. Rising sea-levels are impacting life on low-lying islands and are threatening to erode the very ground off of some of Earth’s inhabitants, like the people of the Maldives. Rising oceans are also threatening to invade cities like New York and coasts like Florida.
Ocean acidification is caused by an increase of carbon in the ocean, which turns the pH of the water more acid. This causes a phenomenon known as bleaching, where coral reefs lose their color and die due to the change of the chemical properties of the water they’re in. Everything that is associated with coral reefs – fishes, sharks, algae, sea snakes, sponges, corals, birds – are in jeopardy as these ecosystems die off the Earth.
Change in Weather Patterns
The climate change that may frighten us the most, and the one that may be the least understood, is the change in weather patterns we will experience due to global warming. Precipitation is likely to change from region to region – some areas are expected to see an increase in precipitation, and some areas may experience more severe droughts. More devastating storms, hurricanes and monsoons are also a possibility. The atmosphere has to accommodate the surplus of carbon dioxide humans have emitted, so everything that is linked to the atmosphere (clouds, wind, water droplets) is likely to change with the increase in temperature. Entire seasons, such as the “dry season” and the “wet season” in the Indo-Pacific may change, both temporally (timing) and spatially (where they hit). Scientists still don’t understand very well the impact clouds have on global warming (whether they can be a negative or positive feedback) but the increasing intensity of storms has been noted.
So every time you think that you aren’t that powerful to change the world – and that humans aren’t that powerful to change the way the planet works – think back to the carbon cycle. “Little things” like burning up stocks of carbon have huge consequences – entire are lost, cities may drown, and the Earth might enter a climate that is unprecedented in the life of the Homo sapiens. We humans do have a huge impact on the Earth – now that we know that, let’s make our impact a good one, all right?