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Another Voice: Pan of water helps explain carbon dioxide paradox

By Frank J. Dinan

Recent headlines have proclaimed what seems to be an impossible situation: “Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, while human-induced carbon dioxide emissions decline.”

We are left to wonder about this seeming paradox.

While this headline seems contradictory, it really isn’t. To understand why, we need only to think of two familiar objects: a sponge and a pan of warming water. We will look at this as a three-act play.

Act one lasts from earliest times until well into the 20th century, when the earth served as a sponge that absorbed carbon dioxide from the air. Its oceans, in particular, absorbed most of the carbon dioxide emitted. Once dissolved in the oceans the gas forms a weak acid, carbonic acid.

This has been going on for untold millions of years, and it hadn’t harmed our Earth.

In act two, the 21st century, we see that things have changed. Now the ocean’s reefs are dying everywhere. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, considered by some to be the Earth’s largest living organism, is being destroyed by the warmest ocean water ever recorded and unprecedented amounts of dissolved carbonic acid.

The oceans have now absorbed so much carbon dioxide and are so warm and so acidic, they no longer support reef growth and, instead, are killing the reefs, so vital to much of the sea’s life.

Now the oceans are behaving like our pan of warming water. Initially, there are no bubbles in our pan. As the water warms further, however, bubbles of dissolved air form, then rise to the surface and escape the warming water.

This is what is happening in today’s oceans: Their waters are now so warm that they are releasing dissolved carbon dioxide into the atmosphere instead of absorbing it, just as our pan of water releases its dissolved air bubbles as it warms.

In act three of our play, we see the Earth locked in the grip of a potentially fatal feedback loop. As the Earth warms, the ocean’s dissolved carbon dioxide is released, and this causes the temperature to continue to rise. This releases more gas, and the temperature rises even more. And round and round the loop we go.

Can we escape this loop? Will our play have a happy ending? Probably not, unless we are able to release man-made carbon dioxide so slowly that its slow rate of release counters

the ever-increasing rate of release of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s saturated oceans.

Will that happen? Given our current political climate, one in which our president insists that this is all a “scam,” I think it unlikely. But for the Earth’s sake, for our sake, for our children’s, and their children’s sake, I hope I’m wrong.

Frank J. Dinan, Ph.D., is emeritus professor in the Chemistry/Biochemistry Department of Canisius College. He lives in Tonawanda.

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