Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Its the CO2, Stupid!

Today's News-Leader has an interesting editorial by Dr. D. Alexander Wait of the MSU Biology Department discussing the effects of rising carbon dioxide (CO2).  We hear lots of debate on whether there is global warming and if so, is it a natural cycle or due to carbon dioxide accumulation, or both.  Did you know that CO2 was identified as a greenhouse gas in 1859?
In May 1859, six months before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Irish physicist John Tyndall proved that some gases have a remarkable capacity to hang onto heat, so demonstrating the physical basis of the greenhouse effect. Charles Darwin had journeyed round the world and ruminated for 20 years before presenting his inflammatory ideas on evolution. Tyndall spent just a few weeks experimenting in a windowless basement lab in London.  - From newscientist.com.
Lost in the noise of the argument over global warming is the fact that the rising levels of CO2  in recent years has many other effects on the planet.   Dr. Wait's article mentions a few which are particularly interesting.  Although CO2 is used by plants to photosynthesize energy and subsequently release oxygen, too much or too little of anything can be a bad thing.  While many trees and plants may grow faster, corn's photosynthesis mechanism is all ready saturated with CO2 and can't grow any faster.  Unfortunately many weeds thrive and can outgrow crops.  Worse yet, increased CO2 concentrations produce a more potent poison ivy.
"Weeds of crop plants often respond to a greater degree with increased growth than do crop plants, which results in greater amounts of herbicide applications to optimize yield.  Protein content of many crop plants has been shown to decrease when the plants are grown at elevated C02. Finally, recent research with soybeans indicated that increasing concentrations of CO2 are inhibiting resistance to pests such that any potential increases in yield would be more than offset by pest damage."
If global warming advances, we won't see rising sea levels in the Ozarks.  However, atmospheric changes would likely affect growing seasons, plant composition and eventually the lives of insects and animals who depend on them.
Even if there is no effect on global warming, ocean acidification affects us indirectly.  Reduction in coral skeletons can ultimately reduce the coral reefs.  Decreases in marine algae and free-swimming zooplankton can reduce the volume of commercial fish and shellfish while the growth of human population increases demand.
This is the only planet we are leaving our children and their offspring, so we had better take good care of it.  This political message is brought to you by Thomas Jefferson.  "The earth belongs in usufruct [trust] to the living ... no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence." Time Magazine editorial.
Carbon dioxide accumulation is the disease; global warming is a likely symptom.

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