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Respiration: The Earth Breathes Too

The group “Police” had a sultry song that brought our attention to this process in “Every Breath You Take.” It was very popular in the 1980’s.
But humans are not the only ones that breathe; so does planet Earth. When we breathe in air, we exhale air that is enriched in carbon dioxide and depleted in oxygen. When the Earth breathes in and then exhales, the air becomes enriched with oxygen and depleted in carbon dioxide. So we have a nice balance. Well, sort of, anyway.
The Keeling Curve documents the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, over the last 55 or so years, as humans have burned through enormous amounts of fossil fuels. But there is another part of the curve that is also very interesting and that is the annual cycle that is evident.
Let’s look at the NOAA graph, titled “One year of CO 2 daily and weekly means at Mauna Loa” in Hawaii.  Parts Per Million [ppm] are shown on the vertical axis, and the months are designated by a letter on the horizontal axis. It starts with “J” for July and then proceeds through the year.
Figuratively speaking, our planet does breathe; but, only once a year. The graph starts on the left side at J [July 2013] where the CO 2 level is about 398 ppm. However, by about O [October2013], the ppm levels drop to about 394 ppm. The levels begin increasing again until M/J [May/June2014] when they reach a maximum at 402 ppm and then begin falling again.

Note however, that J [July 2014] is about 2-3 ppm higher than the previous year at the same time.

So what is going on?

Earth’s greenery [phytoplankton, grasses, shrubs, trees, flowers], where photosynthesis occurs, is located mostly in the northern hemisphere which contains most of our planets’ land mass. The plants are breathing and taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and exhaling what they don’t use along with oxygen that they produce. Thus, by photosynthesis, the vegetation removes huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during spring and summer.

The yearly cycle, however, ends with higher levels of this gas [~2 ppm] than when it started. This natural cycle of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere cannot keep up with our civilizations’ production of this greenhouse gas [GHG], and others, through our combustion of fossil fuels and land use changes [deforestation, etc.].

And, so our planet continues to trap energy and to warm.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its updated report in September 2013. The 1530 page report is available free on the web. On page 11 it states that the levels of GHGs today are higher than any time “in at least the last 800,000 years”.

In the Summary for Policymakers, p.5, it states “The frequency or intensity of heavy precipitation events has likely increased in North America and Europe.” See map of U.S. from the National Climate Assessment report titled “Observed Change in Very Heavy Precipitation.” All U.S. continental regions over the past 50 years have seen increases, especially the Northeast where these events are up 71%.

One important reason for this is that warm air holds more water. In mid-August 2014 we witnessed scenes of flooding that were startling.

This unusual event began with a storm system over Nebraska when almost 4 inches of rain fell, much of it in a two-hour period. This was almost an inch more than that region receives in the entire month of August.

This weather event continued over Detroit with 4 to 6 inches of rain falling in four hours. The police department even sent divers down to cars submerged in underpasses to look for motorists. After passing over Baltimore and New Jersey the storm hit Suffolk County L.I. [screen shot of flooded cars].  An astonishing 13.27 inches of rain fell within 24 hours with 5 inches between 5 and 6 a.m.


Some countries, responsibly, are mitigating CO 2 emissions with renewables [see graph “Cumulative Installed Solar ...”]; Germany met 31% of the nation’s electricity needs in 1 st half of 2014 by renewables.  In July 2014, Spain met 38% of its electrical needs by wind and solar power.

And so it goes.