Sunday, July 07, 2013
Why I gifted my wife a piece of rock.
In 2008, my friend, Ashwin and I had gone cycling along the white chalky cliffs of the South British coast. On the way back I picked up a tiny 2 inch cube of chalk as a souvenir and gifted it to my wife. To many it may seem a pretty unremarkable piece of chalk, a boring gift, but continue reading and you will think differently. The Sun today burns about 25% more brightly than when the earth was just forming. So this should have resulted in a warmer Earth, and prevented life on earth from prospering. So what has kept the earth at such a conducive temperature? Trillions upon trillions of tiny marine organisms- foraminiferans, coccoliths and calcareous algae. These capture atmospheric carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, when it falls as rain and use it to make their tiny shells. The carbon gets locked up in their shells, and this prevents a dangerous build-up of it as a greenhouse gas. Eventually all the tiny foraminiferans and coccoliths die and fall to the bottom of the sea, where they are compressed into limestone. Today you can see them along the white cliffs of the English Channel, for example. The amazing thing about this process is the quantity of carbon they sequester. The tiny 2 inch cube that I gave my wife has more than three hundred litres of compressed carbon dioxide that would have otherwise been doing us no good at all. So that tiny little unremarkable rock, was the reason why we have life on earth today- the very essence of life in a way. It may sound a bit rhetorical, but for earth, it worked, until humans arrived. We have a careless predilection for tampering with natures balances. Since the beginning of the Industrial revolution we have put in much more carbon into the air, than that can be handled by nature's agents. Before the dawn of the industrial age the level of carbon dioxide in atmosphere was about 280 ppm (parts per million). By 1958, when scientist began to realise the effect of carbon dioxide, it had touched 315 ppm and today it's over 360 ppm. Today we are at that critical threshold, where the natural biosphere will stop buffering us from the effects of our emissions and will actually start amplifying it. The runaway temperature will kill many plants and trees and when these dying trees decay, they will release their store of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere adding to our problems. If you see Earth's history, it has dealt with such rising temperatures before and returned back to stability and happiness. Only that it took a mere sixty thousand years and a near total extinction of life on earth.