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Carbon Dioxide and the Climate

A 1956 American Scientist article explores climate change; two contemporary commentaries illuminate its relevance to the present

Gilbert N. Plass, James Rodger Fleming, Gavin Schmidt

The two most important contributing factors from the inorganic world are the release of carbon dioxide from the interior of the Earth by hot springs, volcanoes, and other sources and the formation of carbonates in the weathering of igneous rocks. They happen to be nearly in balance today. The first one adds and the second subtracts about 0.1 x 109 tons per year to the atmosphere. Thus it appears that as far as natural factors are concerned, the amount of carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere is very nearly equal to the amount returned to it. The specific numbers given in this section are only order of magnitude estimates. The values given here are averages of some of the more careful estimates.

Recently, however, man has added an important new factor to the carbon dioxide balance. As first pointed out by Callendar, the combustion of fossil fuels is adding 6.0 x 109 tons per year of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at the present time and the rate is increasing every year. Today this factor is larger than any contribution from the inorganic world. Thus today man by his own activities is increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the rate of 30 per cent a century. The possible influence of this on the climate will be discussed later.

The oceans contain a vast reservoir of carbon dioxide; some of it is in the form of dissolved gas, but it consists mostly of carbonates in various degrees of ionization. From the known dissociation constants for sea water, it is possible to calculate the atmospheric carbon dioxide pressure that is in equilibrium with a given amount of carbonates in the oceans. At the present time the carbon dioxide pressure is about 3 x 10–4 atmospheres; there are 2.3 x 1012 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and 130 x 1012 tons of carbon dioxide and carbonates in the oceans. Thus the oceans contain over fifty times as much carbon dioxide as the atmosphere. If conditions should change, the oceans can add to or subtract from the amount in the atmosphere.

Kulp has recently shown from radiocarbon determination that the deep ocean waters at the latitude of Newfoundland were at the surface 1,700 years ago. This suggests that it may take tens of thousands of years for the waters of the deep ocean to make one complete circuit from the surface to the bottom and back. Only the surface waters of the oceans can absorb carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. Since there is very little circulation between the surface waters and the ocean depths, the time for the atmosphere-ocean system to return to equilibrium following a disturbance of some sort is at least as long as the turnover time of the oceans. Thus, if the atmospheric carbon dioxide amount should suddenly increase, it may easily take a period of tens of thousands of years before the atmosphere-ocean system is again in equilibrium.

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