The Carbon Conundrum

According to experts at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, a critical aspect of global warming is the result of temperature change on carbon storage in the biosphere. NASA scientists have discovered an interesting phenomenon. They have discovered that an increase in global temperatures may both increase and decrease the rise in atmospheric CO2.

This is their discovery: When temperatures rise, carbon is released from the soil; when it oxidizes (joins with oxygen), it is converted into CO2. When temperatures rise, there is also a notable increase in plant growth, which in turn absorbs CO2, taking it out of the atmosphere. In this way, an ecosystem has the ability to help moderate the balance of CO2 concentrations present between global warming and plant growth.

David Schimel of the Climate and Global Dynamics Division of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado says, "Within the literature, there's been a debate about the effect of temperature on ecosystems. One line of argument holds that as temperatures increase, ecosystems should lose carbon to the atmosphere (because the temperature/carbon release effect is stronger than the increased temperature/plant growth effect). The opposing argument holds that most warm weather carbon release is from the soils. One catch, however, is that when carbon is released from the soils, so are nutrients, which then act as a fertilizer on the vegetation, which should increase plant growth and increase photosynthesis, thereby taking in more CO2 from the atmosphere.

Whereas both theories should hold true, Schimel conducted a study. He concluded that "the data support both hypotheses, but the difference between the two relates to an offset in time: (1) in warm years there is a release of carbon. Then, one to three years later, there is some carbon uptake." According to Schimel, the next problem for NASA to address is which effect is larger.

He has determined that at the peak of warm periods, plant growth increases in both the polar and temperate regions, but decreases in the equatorial regions. Conversely, in global warming conditions, research suggests decreased plant growth. Schimel believes the future role of models that analyze the atmosphere and biosphere together will be crucial.

eventually become transformed into layers of limestone. Limestone can accumulate over billions of years of geologic time. Because these formations are so high in carbon, large stores of the Earth's carbon are located in these formations.

Based on this slow, natural process, researchers are trying to find artificial ways to speed up this process. Currently, one method under consideration is to take dunite or serpentinite and mix it with CO2 to form the carbonate mineral magnesite, plus silica and iron oxide (also called magnetite).

So far, serpentinite sequestration is the preferred method because it is nontoxic and a more stable, predictable rock. The drawback in this experimental method is that the serpentine works best only if the formation has a high magnesium content. If iron is present in the formation, this method is not as attractive.

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