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Fall 2009

*You can also download the entire issue in PDF form.

 

Our Changing Climate

Welcome to Keystone Wild!Notes newest feature, "Our Changing Climate."

In this column, we're going to explore climate change and how it will influence Pennsylvania's species and habitats. To kick it off, I thought we'd begin with the basics. So let's talk about what's gotten us into this mess -- CARBON.

It's important to recognize that carbon is not bad. In fact, it's the element on which all life is based. We are all carbonbased units, to borrow a phrase from Star Trek. So why, then, is it causing such problems?

In order to answer that, we first need to understand where and in what forms carbon naturally occurs. Carbon is found in four global reservoirs:

 

1) Geologic - Carbon occurs underground in the form of
coal, oil and natural gas.

2) Terrestrial - On land, carbon is found in
the form of living things, like people and trees,
and in the soil.

3) Atmospheric - Carbon is found in the
atmosphere in several different forms, but the
most common is carbon dioxide.

4) Oceanic - Sea water contains high levels
of dissolved carbon dioxide, carbonates and other
carbon compounds; and it's contained within the
bodies of sea creatures as well.

These reservoirs aren't static. Carbon is constantly moving back and forth between them through the carbon cycle. The rate and direction of this movement has been relatively stable, at least until recently.

We've been removing huge amounts of carbon from the geologic reservoir. This began with the industrial revolution, and then really kicked into high gear after Edwin Drake drilled the first commercially successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859.

As we burn coal, oil and natural gas for fuel, we transfer geologic carbon to the atmospheric reservoir. Additionally, deforestation, particularly in the tropics, is converting large amounts of terrestrial carbon into atmospheric carbon as well.
The end result is the insulating blanket of atmospheric carbon dioxide that makes our planet habitable is beginning to feel more like a down comforter in summertime.

And on top of that, as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, the amount that is transferred to the oceans is also increasing, leading to concerns about ocean acidification.

If we're throwing the system out of balance, what should we do?

There are three essential and complimentary steps:

 

1) Stop transferring carbon from the geologic to the
atmospheric reservoir. In other words, switch from fossil fuels
to renewable energy.

2) Begin removing carbon from the atmospheric reservoir
and putting it into one of the other reservoirs. This is a process
known as carbon sequestration.

3) Begin planning for and coping with the changes to come
(see the story on climate change adaptation in the Summer
2009 issue
).

Each of these strategies, and many more aspects of climate
change, will be covered in future installments of this series. If
you have specific climate change topics you'd like us to cover,
send me an e-mail at gczarnecki@state.pa.us.

Cosmo

Stock photo/Art Explosion

 

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