When you read articles about climate change, much of the focus is on carbon dioxide emissions. Sometimes, at the end of these articles, there may be a few encouraging tips on how to save the planet, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself why the focus is on carbon dioxide? Have you ever wondered if there was more to the story than polar bears and melting ice caps? Turns out, global warming is really complicated. In this post, I’m going to lay out some of the other factors that contribute to fluctuations in Earth’s climate.
The word “albedo” sounds like an exotic dog name, but it is a word to describe how reflective the surface of a planet is. More reflected light means lower surface temperatures. More absorbed light means higher surface temperatures. Things like clouds, ice, and snow will reflect more light and heat. Things like exposed land masses and oceans absorb light and heat.
Not to be confused with the carbon cycle, this cycle contains no living organisms. Carbon dioxide is taken out of the atmosphere by rain and eventually deposited onto ocean floors. Over time, carbon is ejected out of the earth via volcanoes and put back into the atmosphere. It’s important to note that carbon dioxide is a gas, but various chemical reactions occur in this cycle to convert CO2 gas into solids such as calcium carbonate. This allows for the natural cycling of carbon and the process occurs over hundreds and thousands of years. The carbon-silicate cycle is often referred to as Earth’s thermostat.
A greenhouse gas is any gas that has the ability to trap the sun’s energy. If it weren’t for greenhouse gases, the average temperature on Earth would be much colder, around -18 degrees Celsius. We like greenhouse gases, we need greenhouse gases, we just don’t want too much of them.
Here are some common greenhouse gases:
- Carbon dioxide
- Nitrous oxide
- Fluorinated gases
There is one more gas, water vapor, that I didn’t add to the list. Water vapor changes depending on the temperature. Therefore, the warmer the earth gets, the more water vapor there is, which leads to even warmer temperatures.
Carbon dioxide is only 0.04% of the total gases in our atmosphere. Out of the four greenhouse gases in the list above, carbon dioxide makes up 80% of all the greenhouse gases. Finally, each gas has a different atmospheric lifetime, some only hang around in the atmosphere for a decade while others are there for thousands of years.
There’s more?! Yes, there’s more. Sinks are places where certain compounds are stored. In the case of global warming, we look at the different carbon sinks. One of the very cool things about our planet is that sinks prevent change from happening very quickly. The Industrial Revolution was when humans first started to burn fossil fuels and increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Luckily, growing plants and oceans are some of the biggest carbon sinks. Photosynthesis takes CO2 out of the atmosphere to make glucose for the plant and the water in the oceans are able to dissolve CO2 and absorb extra heat.
The problem now, in the 21st century, is that sinks are saturated. Just like your kitchen sink that is full of dirty dishes, we eventually hit a point when sinks can no longer hold extra carbon. Any extra CO2 that is put into the atmosphere stays there; this is why so many environmental plans focus on curbing or stopping carbon emissions.
Climate change and global warming is complicated. Just like human communities, Earth’s ecosystem is a large community of living and non-living things all co-existing together. The goal of this post wasn’t to lecture, but to inform. So with these new pieces of information, I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about global warming.