A Vicious Cycle: Carbon Building Feedback Loops

2 by Doug Gunzelmann


As early as 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius said that it’s a simple path to increased global heating: add CO2 and the earth will warm up.  Global Warming right?  Yes, but even more pressing is the compounding nature of the warming.  Small changes in the earth’s average temperature can cause a much greater impact than at first glance, almost like a snowballing effect (minus the snowballs!). Called carbon building feedback loops, they can gain momentum and spin out of man’s control. Once certain carbon stores and filter systems are thrown out of balance the results may be beyond our control (and our avid efforts at being faithful stewards of the earth).  It’s a vicious cycle...


First we have melting of the arctic sea ice. As more ice melts there is a decreased reflection of the sun’s energy from the bright white snow and ice. This means darker ocean water and land start absorbing this energy leading to a further increase in the planet’s temperature.


Also in this part of the world we have an increase in melting permafrost. Frozen deep in the subterranean layers of the permafrost are methane rich bogs. If frozen, this methane is unable to wreak its effects. However, with melting permafrost the released methane is 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2!


Another effect of generalized global warming is the increase in ocean water temperatures. Warm surface temperatures act to decrease the CO2 exchange with deeper ocean thermoclines. This means our great oceans lose some of their ability to absorb CO2 which again leads to increased heating, and the cycle continues. Our oceans act as a heat and carbon sink but at a certain point this function is greatly impaired.


Finally we come to the ever present issue of the Amazon rainforest die-off. As stated in a post we recently made the Amazon is being rapidly depleted for a number of reasons including farming, cattle grazing, and the harvesting of precious wood resources. With less rainforest area there is increase in drought and wildfires (another self-feeding cycle). With the burning of vegetation there is further release of CO2, less biomass to absorb in-air CO2, and decreased rainfall. One effect feeds into the next exacerbating the symptoms.

Although it is tough to estimate if we have breached this tipping point the end result of carbon release is inevitable. It is a sobering thought that a spiraling series of events may be underway that have been caused by our actions. What equally concerning is that we may not have the power to bring about the changes required.

| More