, Salem, MA


May 23, 2013

Watson: Carbon dioxide in the air increases steadily

Early this month the chemical composition of the atmosphere, which for a variety of reasons changes constantly but very slowly, reached a mixture of gases that is considered to bode ill for the stability of climates across the globe.

Specifically, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has climbed to a new high level that will increasingly affect the balances and equilibrium of many of the important soil, water, chemical, and weather patterns and cycles around the world.

The atmosphere is a relatively thin shell surrounding the earth. Most people, who rightfully perceive the sky as something “big,” are astounded to learn just how thin the sky — the lower atmosphere — is. To reach the upper atmosphere, where only a few light gases exist, we need travel through roughly only 60 miles of lower atmosphere.

Compare this 60-mile-thick layer to the diameter of the planet — 7,918 miles — and you can get a sense of what a narrow skin it is. And even though there are about 10,000 miles or more of diffused upper atmosphere gases above it — before “outer space” begins — it is the narrow 60-mile band that is important to us.

This band contains the oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and about 15 other gases that constantly mix and circulate around the globe, creating or affecting the weather, microclimates, natural chemical cycles, and ecological processes that shape and support all natural (including human) life on the planet.

Alter the chemical composition of this band in any significant way and you’ll stimulate a reaction — some reaction — because all of the parts (gases, organisms, climate) are interconnected. This is science, but it’s not rocket science. It can all be grasped with mere common sense: alter the ingredients or their proportions in any soup recipe and you’ll change its taste or consistency or some other attribute.

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