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Geomimicry: Reversing the Great Sequestration

Image credit: Timothy Eberly/Unsplash

This is the third in a four-part series on geomimicry by renowned author and George Mason University professor Dr. Gregory C. Unruh. Read parts one and two.

This series has looked at Geomimicry the human imitation of physical geological processes in the design and manufacture products and services — and this article will look another sustainability challenge that arises from our dependence on geomimicry: Global climate change.

From space, what you notice are the blue-green colors — green being plant life and blue, liquid water. This is not an accident, as biology has played a powerful co-evolutionary role in creating life-sustaining conditions on the planet. By looking at the chemistry of the atmosphere, we can see the power of the biosphere to alter the air around us.

Image credit: Wikimedia

This figure is known as the Keeling Curve, and it shows changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over time. What most people see when they look at this figure is the upward trend line from the 1960s to today, illustrating the constant rise of CO2 in the atmosphere. That rise is primarily due to our dependence on fossil fuel and is a really consequential discovery. But what's more interesting to me is the smaller annual up and down trend. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations go up and down on an annual basis, and that rise and fall correlates with the seasons.

If you look at the seasonal variation inset, you'll notice that concentrations come down dramatically between April and September corresponding, to spring and summer in the northern hemisphere. In the spring, the northern forests come alive and green leaf growth is everywhere. Leaves are fascinating things: First of all, they’re little solar panels that are produced on demand. As soon as the sun is strong enough, trees produce their panels and start turning sunshine into chemical energy and biomass. Second, they appear out of thin air. Literally.

Actually, air is not as thin as it seems to us, but full of CO2. In the springtime, the trees start sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as a raw material input for the manufacture of leaves and plant growth, and that's what you see in these annual cycles. In the fall, the trees jettison the leaves and as they decay, CO2 returns to the atmosphere. Once the biosphere in the northern hemisphere gets active, it changes the atmosphere. Life has a consequential impact on what happens in the atmosphere.

When you combine geology with biology, you have an even greater long-term impact on the atmosphere. The first 600 million years of the earth are appropriately called the Hadean period and point to a very hot environment. Volcanoes released huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the early days of the earth. But as geologic activity started to slow, rainwater formed and rock weather began to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, fostering conditions that were tolerable for life. This graph shows estimates of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere for the last 500 million years.

Atmospheric CO2 through the Phanerozoic. Dashed line shows predictions of the GEOCARB carbon cycle model with grey shading representing uncertainty range. Solid line shows smoothed representation of the proxy record (Royer 2006).

The graph illustrates what I like to call the Great Sequestration because, while there are ups and downs, the overall trend in CO2 concentrations has been downward for hundreds of millions of years. The big drop began around 400 million years ago and coincides with the rise of land plants. This was the time of the great primeval swamp forests that spread across the planet during the Carboniferous period. Carboniferous means “carbon bearing,” referring to the carbon-rich coal deposits that the geology of this period produced. But the coal deposits are really just fossilized swamp forests that were buried under sediments and sequestered through geology. The forests pulled CO2 out of the atmosphere, died, were buried and eventually turned into coal deposits.

Now, however, with the rise of our geomimetic industrial economy, we are in the process of reversing the Great Sequestration. Through coal mining, we are exhuming the ancient Carboniferous forests and burning them for energy. By doing so, we put their long-sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere. We're reversing the dynamic interplay between biology and geology that took hundreds of millions of years to play out, and doing so in the blink of a geologic eye.

Will our reliance on geomimicry return us to an environment that is less conducive to life? We don't know the full consequences of reversing the Great Sequestration, but it is certainly making a world less conducive to the lifestyles we’ve grown accustomed to. We are already beginning to see impacts of climate change with the increases in hurricanes, flooding and droughts, all of which are in agreement with predicted impacts of increasing atmospheric CO2. Geologic history tells us that reversing the Great Sequestration is incredibly risky and something that should be a preeminent concern to humankind.

Part 4: Could Doubling Down on Geomimicry Save Us from Climate Disaster?

Dr. Gregory C. Unruh is the Arison Professor of Values Leadership at George Mason University in the Washington DC Metro area. His upcoming book, The Biosphere Rules: Nature’s Five Circularity Secrets for Sustainable Profits, can be found at [Read more about Gregory Unruh]

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