We are experiencing the highest concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our environment ever seen by humankind. There’s a lot of talk going on right now about the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and exactly what that means. Although spikes such as this have happened somewhat frequently in Earth’s history, many scientists are concerned about the most recent rise as it has happened extremely fast and has begun to impact plants and animals in ways we did not expect. This is not an article discussing the causes of rising CO2 in the atmosphere. Instead, let’s look at the impact that it is already having on our environment and economy in order to better understand the problem we are dealing with.
What exactly does carbon dioxide do?
Carbon dioxide is an important element of our atmosphere. It helps regulate the temperature of the planet and it serves as an integral part of photosynthesis, the process by which plants produce energy. The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has generally fluctuated throughout history, rising and falling due to changes in climate and the types of organisms alive at the time. Current levels are much higher than what have been found in samples of ancient ice dating back up to 800,000 years. One would think that with higher concentrations of CO2 in the environment, plants might be able to grow to gargantuan heights at record speed due to CO2 being more readily available to use for photosynthesis. In reality, this is indeed what is happening. Plants are growing at a faster rate than before, and they are able to produce more stored energy in forms such as sugar. While this sounds great on paper, it is having some potentially devastating side effects as well.
Plants growing faster may not be such a good thing…
Even though plants are growing faster than before, research is beginning to show that the food they produce is actually less nutritious than before as well. Because plants are able to produce much more stored energy, this excess is actually serving to crowd out other nutrients such as zinc, potassium, iron, and calcium from the plants. This can lead to crops that have less nutrients and protein in favor of more sugar. In addition to this, studies have shown that the additional increase in global temperature due to increased CO2 negatively impacts crop yields at the staggering rate of between 3.5 to 8.5 billion dollars for every additional ton of CO2 emitted.
Pollen is losing potency
Pollen has been affected by the change in carbon dioxide as well- a recent study suggests that the protein content in pollen has dropped by a third since the 1800s. This is very impactful to pollinators, especially bees that have evolved to feed their young specific amounts of pollen. It is unclear how a protein-deficient diet will affect these species, however shorter life expectancies could be expected which could lead to pollination difficulties for flowering plants. The rise of CO2 concentrations has also started to change leaves as well. Normally plants use tiny openings, or stomata, in their leaves to ‘inhale’ CO2 and ‘exhale’ water. Plants are starting to develop leaves with fewer of these openings since carbon dioxide is easier to grab in the air, while as a consequence they might start releasing less water back into the atmosphere.
What can be done to help?
There are other complex effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide sure to be discovered in the coming years. However, it can be easy to make a difference. By taking steps to slow the speed of this rapid increase, we can more efficiently learn its effects on the world around us. Find out more about your carbon footprint and what you can do to reduce it by visiting the EPA’s carbon footprint calculator at: https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/.
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