Nature Notes: Seeing the Light

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise

   We just learned something Monday as reported in both Newsday and The New York Times. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise; it’s up 3 percent over last year. Every time we inhale, we 7 billion humans breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. If that isn’t enough, all of the other billions and billions of organisms including both plants and animals with the exception of a very few, also respire, i.e., consume oxygen and discharge carbon dioxide.
    Plants, however, produce way more oxygen than they use up, they are oxygen contributors, while taking in carbon dioxide to make carbon based products — fructose, glucose, cellulose, and a bunch more — both for short-term use, annual storage, and long-term use. A 2,000-year-old California redwood is chock full of stored carbon molecules that came from carbon dioxide.
    Forest fires, which have been on the rise in this millennium, account for the release of much carbon dioxide, all that carbon stored up in the trees now reduced to ashes. But we humans collectively around the world produce more carbon dioxide via burning carbon fuels (natural gas, oil, gasoline, wood, coal, peat, etc.) than sporadic forest fires, which don’t happen day in and day out in the same predictable fashion.
    Jimmy Carter as president was far ahead of his time when he proposed keeping heating thermostats down to 65 degrees rather than the oft-recommended 72 degrees, even at the White House during his four-year tenure. Too few of our leaders and industrialists took him seriously. Economic bubbles came along, yes, they put people to work, but they also produced bigger houses to heat, bigger motor vehicles to drive around in, more airplane passenger trips, etc., etc., etc. No wonder CO2 continues to increase in the atmosphere.
    What does it do up there? It dramatically increases the greenhouse effect. It traps heat reradiated from the earth’s surface and air temperatures increase. When air temperatures increase, glaciers melt faster and shed their melt waters to the ocean, and sea level responds by rising concomitantly. The seas also get warmer, and thus expand in volume adding to sea-level rise. They also become more acidic as more carbon dioxide is dissolved in seawater, which, in turn, increases the amount of carbon-based acids available to lower the pH from its normal, and healthy, alkalinity levels. Marine organisms of all kinds suffer. The ocean’s biomass and biota both fall.
    Locally, shellfish shells become thinner, making them more susceptible to predation. The Peconic and Great South Bay estuaries become fresher and fresher. It becomes a lose-lose situation throughout.
    Yes, global warming will lower heating fuel consumption to a small degree, but more people driving more vehicles, flying here and there, and cruising the oceans while commensurately using cellphones and iPads will offset any savings realized by lowering the thermostats. Then too, it takes a lot of carbon-based energy to drill and pump the oil, drill and decant the natural gas from shales, mine coal, and even cut firewood. When we purposely burn firewood (or peat, as in some countries) we are further releasing the stores of carbon.
    Hydroelectric power doesn’t produce any carbon dioxide to speak of, but most of the prime spots for producing it have already been exploited. Dams also interfere with the ecology of rivers, especially those used by diadromous fishes such as salmon and steelhead trout. Nuclear power is carbon-free, but it has long-lasting detrimental side effects and the capacity to produce disastrous acute affects, as recently demonstrated in Japan. Electric cars don’t emit carbon or any other injurious gases, except, perhaps, for ozone, but if they aren’t charged with hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, or solar power, they are, in fact, producing a lot of second-hand carbon dioxide by way of the carbon fuels that are burned to charge their batteries.
    Wind, geothermal, and solar energies release very little, if any, carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Of these, drilling into the deep “hot rocks” zone promises an almost unlimited amount of thermal energy, but worries about drilling-induced earthquakes have put the development of such a cheap, non-polluting energy source on hold. Wind turbines, whether land-based or offshore, are very clean and relatively efficient, but their effects on wildlife, especially migrating birds and fish, can be devastating, as accumulating empirical evidence is revealing.
    Solar seems to be trouble-free, at least, at the moment. It also lends itself well to local residential, industrial, and institutional use. A solar roof on every home hardly impacts the visual quality of the landscape, but can you imagine a wind turbine at every home site? Not pretty! Big box stores were never intended to be pretty; putting solar panels on top hardly diminishes their aesthetic qualities. Large parking lots are ideal spots for solar panel arrays, too. And when it rains, your car doesn’t get wet. Ironically, the same oil-rich parts of the world controlled by OPEC also get a disproportionate amount of sunlight and therein may lie part of the solution.
    There is a law in physics that no transformation from one form of energy to another is 100 percent efficient. Otherwise, it would be possible to construct perpetual motion machines. Idealistic efficiencies for such transfers stop at around 50 percent. When sunrays impinge on solar panels they produce electricity at a fairly high rate of exchange. The waste energy that results from the transformation is heat for the most part, so on a cold day, the solar-powered residence gets a little bit of extra warming. Not bad.
    Before we fill the seas with wind turbines or build any more dams, we should push on with the development of solar power to the maximum extent. Astronomers and astrophysicists tell us that the sun isn’t going anywhere for at least several billion years. My bet is on solar. What’s more, on Long Island it could even help pay off the troubled Long Island Power Authority’s $3 billion debt.