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Nature vs. Nurture: Earth’s Greatest Hero

We’ve focused a lot on the past two weeks on historical energy heroes – from inventors, to activists, to authors, and political figures but in reality there is one major energy component that is constantly working on maintaining homeostasis for our planet, and that is the planet itself! The science behind how our earth is constantly regulating it’s own temperature, or removing CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, or how decomposition brings nutrients back to earth so that new plants can grow is nothing short of remarkable.

You’ve likely heard that trees produce oxygen, but how does it work? An article from National Geographic describes it as follows: “Trees—all plants, in fact—use the energy of sunlight, and through the process of photosynthesis they take carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water from the ground. In the process of converting it into wood they release oxygen into the air. In addition to the CO2 that trees capture, they also help soil capture significant amounts of carbon” (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-to-erase-100-years-carbon-emissions-plant-trees#:~:text=Carbon%2Deating%20trees,release%20oxygen%20into%20the%20air). There is a lot to be gained from even planting just one tree in your own back yard, and as it grows and grows it will continue to produce oxygen, contributing to the planet’s supply.

Alternatively, you may have heard the saying that the amazon rainforest produces 20% of the worlds oxygen, however this is a myth! While photosynthesis in plants does consume CO2 and produce oxygen as a byproduct, once the tree dies and decomposes, the process releases CO2 back into the air. According to a Newsweek article published in 2019, James Randerson from the University of California, Irvine, explains the key problems in deforestation as follows: “‘Deforestation and fire-driven forest degradation affect the carbon cycle in two ways. First, there is a direct release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the conversion process. Second, the loss of forest reduces the ability of the forest as a whole to absorb carbon. More forest fires in the Amazon will accelerate the buildup of greenhouse gases and we will have higher levels of global warming’” (https://www.newsweek.com/how-much-oxygen-amazon-rain-forest-1456274). While both points in his statement are alarming, the second portion is the key – forests, and other plants/bushes/etc, have a unique ability to absorb large amounts of carbon, and in a healthy, growing plant, it will continue to do so over the lifespan of the plant. So, if we burned down all of the trees in the world, we would not lose as much oxygen, as we would gain carbon since it’s no longer being eliminated by photosynthesis.

I won’t even begin to pretend that I understand Earth’s wind cycles and ocean currents, however I’ve come across some very interesting articles on natural planet heating and cooling while trying to learn more about these phenomenon – check them out below!

From volcano ash/sulfur entering the stratosphere and cooling the planet, to El Niño producing rain in the northern hemisphere, there are forces at work in helping to keep the planet’s temperature somewhat consistent. The problem is that these forces are almost negligible in the face of burning fossil fuels, hence the need to offset your carbon footprint as much as possible!

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Climate Change: Activists and Architects

Global Warming is a buzzword you’ve likely heard before, and may even have an opinion on, but what do we really know about it? Where did it come from, and what does it mean?

According to Global Citizen, the underlying cause of global warming – “the greenhouse effect” – was published in 1965 by “scientists on the US President’s Advisory Committee”, during Lyndon B Johnson’s presidential term, however “it wasn’t until 1975 that the term “global warming” was coined by geoscientist Wallace Broecker – and it took years before the issue reached mainstream understanding” (https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/important-moments-climate-history-in-photos/). For the full report, which covers pollution of air, water, and soil, check it out here: https://www.eenews.net/assets/2019/01/11/document_cw_01.pdf, however if you’re more interested in the information regarding carbon dioxide specifically, see here instead: http://www.climatefiles.com/climate-change-evidence/presidents-report-atmospher-carbon-dioxide/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CRestoring%20the%20Quality%20of%20Our,role%20in%20addressing%20the%20future. In this report, scientists outline how fossil fuel extraction has led to an increase in Carbon Dioxide in the lower and upper sections of the atmosphere, beyond what nature can naturally filter out with rain and trees, and since, according to the report, “carbon dioxide is nearly transparent to visible light, but it is a strong absorber and back radiator of infrared radiation…an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide could act, much like the glass in a greenhouse, to raise the temperature of the lower air” (page 118, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” Report). Hence, the initial foundation for the discovery of “Global Warming” was born. In 1975, in a paper called “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” Wallace Broecker mapped out the effects humans were having by emitting more and more CO2, and while some of his initial findings were off, “Right on cue in 1976, temperatures started ascending, and have continued since then pretty much along the trajectory Broecker laid out” (https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2019/02/19/wallace-broecker-early-prophet-of-climate-change/).

Even though Broecker is thought of as the first to publish the phrase “global warming,” he is certainly not the first person concerned with the problem of pollution. In 1962 Rachel Carson published the “Silent Spring” in which she outlined the toxic pollution in our air and water due to pesticides, just as several environmental concerns had begun to take center stage as oil spills threatened marine life and rivers that fed city drinking water plants caught fire. Thus, in early 1970, President Richard Nixon “sent to Congress a plan to consolidate many environmental responsibilities of the federal government under one agency, a new Environmental Protection Agency” and the EPA was born (https://www.epa.gov/history/origins-epa).

While these findings are only about 50 years old, it’s important to keep in mind that thanks to innovation, research, activism, and technology, new information about is constantly coming to light. If you’re curious to learn more, stay tuned.

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