The Case of the Missing Carbon-Lee Si Rong

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Alone in a sealed jar, a mouse would die from exhaled CO2. But as scientist Joseph Priestley observed in 1771, adding a mint plant allows the mouse to thrive. In this proof of photosynthesis, the mint absorbed CO2, retained carbon for growth, and released oxygen. Two centuries later humans tried—and failed—to survive in a sealed environment in Arizona’s Biosphere 2.It’s there on a monitor: the forest is breathing. Late summer sunlight filters through a canopy of green as Steven Wofsy unlocks a shed in a Massachusetts woodland and enters a room stuffed with equipment and tangled with wires and hoses.

The machinery monitors the vital functions of a small section of Harvard Forest in the center of the state. Bright red numbers dance on a gauge, flickering up and down several times a second. The reading reveals the carbon dioxide concentration just above the treetops near the shed, where instruments on a hundred-foot (30-meter) tower of steel lattice sniff the air. The numbers are running surprisingly low for the beginning of the 21st century: around 360 parts per million, ten less than the global average. That’s the trees’ doing. Basking in the sunshine, they inhale carbon dioxide and turn it into leaves and wood.

In nourishing itself, this patch of pine, oak, and maple is also undoing a tiny bit of a great global change driven by humanity. Start the car, turn on a light, adjust the thermostat, or do just about anything, and you add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If you’re an average resident of the United States, your contribution adds up to more than 5.5 tons (5 metric tons) of carbon a year.

The coal, oil, and natural gas that drive the industrial world’s economy all contain carbon inhaled by plants hundreds of millions of years ago—carbon that now is returning to the atmosphere through smokestacks and exhaust pipes, joining emissions from forest burned to clear land in poorer countries. Carbon dioxide is foremost in an array of gases from human activity that increase the atmosphere’s ability to trap heat. (Methane from cattle, rice fields, and landfills, and the chlorofluorocarbons in some refrigerators and air conditioners are others.) Few scientists doubt that this greenhouse warming of the atmosphere is already taking hold. Melting glaciers, earlier springs, and a steady rise in global average temperature are just some of its harbingers.

By rights it should be worse. Each year humanity dumps roughly 8.8 billion tons (8 metric tons) of carbon into the atmosphere, 6.5 billion tons (5.9 metric tons) from fossil fuels and 1.5 billion (1.4 metric) from deforestation. But less than half that total, 3.2 billion tons (2.9 metric tons), remains in the atmosphere to warm the planet. Where is the missing carbon? “It’s a really major mystery, if you think about it,” says Wofsy, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University. His research site in the Harvard Forest is apparently not the only place where nature is breathing deep and helping save us from ourselves. Forests, grasslands, and the waters of the oceans must be acting as carbon sinks. They steal back roughly half of the carbon dioxide we emit, slowing its buildup in the atmosphere and delaying the effects on climate.

Who can complain? No one, for now. But the problem is that scientists can’t be sure that this blessing will last, or whether, as the globe continues to warm, it might even change to a curse if forests and other ecosystems change from carbon sinks to sources, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than they absorb. The doubts have sent researchers into forests and rangelands, out to the tundra and to sea, to track down and understand the missing carbon.

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