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Astronomy

8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change

Astronomy8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Outline the origins and subsequent diversity of life on Earth
  • Explain the ways that life and geological activity have influenced the evolution of the atmosphere
  • Describe the causes and effects of the atmospheric greenhouse effect and global warming
  • Describe the impact of human activity on our planet’s atmosphere and ecology

As far as we know, Earth seems to be the only planet in the solar system with life. The origin and development of life are an important part of our planet’s story. Life arose early in Earth’s history, and living organisms have been interacting with their environment for billions of years. We recognize that life-forms have evolved to adapt to the environment on Earth, and we are now beginning to realize that Earth itself has been changed in important ways by the presence of living matter. The study of the coevolution of life and our planet is one of the subjects of the modern science of astrobiology.

The Origin of Life

The record of the birth of life on Earth has been lost in the restless motions of the crust. According to chemical evidence, by the time the oldest surviving rocks were formed about 3.9 billion years ago, life already existed. At 3.5 billion years ago, life had achieved the sophistication to build large colonies called stromatolites, a form so successful that stromatolites still grow on Earth today (Figure 8.15). But, few rocks survive from these ancient times, and abundant fossils have been preserved only during the past 600 million years—less than 15% of our planet’s history.

Image of Fossilized Stromatolites. In this photograph we see many dozens of irregularly shaped layers, one upon the other. These layers attest to the growth of the colony over time.
Figure 8.15 Cross-Sections of Fossil Stromatolites. This polished cross-section of a fossilized colony of stromatolites dates to the Precambrian Era. The layered, domelike structures are mats of sediment trapped in shallow waters by large numbers of blue-green bacteria that can photosynthesize. Such colonies of microorganisms date back more than 3 billion years. (credit: James St. John)

There is little direct evidence about the actual origin of life. We know that the atmosphere of early Earth, unlike today’s, contained abundant carbon dioxide and some methane, but no oxygen gas. In the absence of oxygen, many complex chemical reactions are possible that lead to the production of amino acids, proteins, and other chemical building blocks of life. Therefore, it seems likely that these chemical building blocks were available very early in Earth’s history and they would have combined to make living organisms.

For tens of millions of years after Earth’s formation, life (perhaps little more than large molecules, like the viruses of today) probably existed in warm, nutrient-rich seas, living off accumulated organic chemicals. When this easily accessible food became depleted, life began the long evolutionary road that led to the vast numbers of different organisms on Earth today. As it did so, life began to influence the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

In addition to the study of life’s history as revealed by chemical and fossil evidence in ancient rocks, scientists use tools from the rapidly advancing fields of genetics and genomics—the study of the genetic code that is shared by all life on Earth. While each individual has a unique set of genes (which is why genetic “fingerprinting” is so useful for the study of crime), we also have many genetic traits in common. Your genome, the complete map of the DNA in your body, is identical at the 99.9% level to that of Julius Caesar or Marie Curie. At the 99% level, human and chimpanzee genomes are the same. By looking at the gene sequences of many organisms, we can determine that all life on Earth is descended from a common ancestor, and we can use the genetic variations among species as a measure of how closely different species are related.

These genetic analysis tools have allowed scientists to construct what is called the “tree of life” (Figure 8.16). This diagram illustrates the way organisms are related by examining one sequence of the nucleic acid RNA that all species have in common. This figure shows that life on Earth is dominated by microscopic creatures that you have probably never heard of. Note that the plant and animal kingdoms are just two little branches at the far right. Most of the diversity of life, and most of our evolution, has taken place at the microbial level. Indeed, it may surprise you to know that there are more microbes in a bucket of soil than there are stars in the Galaxy. You may want to keep this in mind when, later in this book, we turn to the search for life on other worlds. The “aliens” that are most likely to be out there are microbes.

A line chart titled “Tree of Life”. The three is divided into three main branches, labeled “Bacteria”, “Archaea”, and “Eukarya”. Under the branch labeled “Bacteria” are a number of smaller branches labeled “Aquifex”, “Thermotoga”, “Bacteroides Cytophaga”, “Planctomyces”, “Cyanobacteria”, “Proteobacteria”, “Spirochetes”, “Gram positives”, and “Green filamentous bacteria”. Under the branch labeled “Archaea” are a number of smaller branches labeled “Pyrodicticum”, “Thermoproteus”, “Thermococcus”, “Methanococcus”, “Methanobacterium”, “Methanosarcina”, and “Halophiles”. Under the branch labeled “Eukarya” are a number of smaller branches labeled “Entamoebae”, “Slime molds”, “Dilpomonads”, “Microsporidia”, “Trichomonads”, “Flagellates”, “Ciliates”, “Plants”, “Fungi”, and “Animals”. The branch labeled “Animals” is marked with a star.
Figure 8.16 Tree of Life. This chart shows the main subdivisions of life on Earth and how they are related. Note that the animal and plant kingdoms are just short branches on the far right, along with the fungi. The most fundamental division of Earth’s living things is onto three large domains called bacteria, archaea, and eukarya. Most of the species listed are microscopic. (credit: modification of work by Eric Gaba)

Such genetic studies lead to other interesting conclusions as well. For example, it appears that the earliest surviving terrestrial life-forms were all adapted to live at high temperatures. Some biologists think that life might actually have begun in locations on our planet that were extremely hot. Yet another intriguing possibility is that life began on Mars (which cooled sooner) rather than Earth and was “seeded” onto our planet by meteorites traveling from Mars to Earth. Mars rocks are still making their way to Earth, but so far none has shown evidence of serving as a “spaceship” to carry microorganisms from Mars to Earth.

The Evolution of the Atmosphere

One of the key steps in the evolution of life on Earth was the development of blue-green algae, a very successful life-form that takes in carbon dioxide from the environment and releases oxygen as a waste product. These successful microorganisms proliferated, giving rise to all the lifeforms we call plants. Since the energy for making new plant material from chemical building blocks comes from sunlight, we call the process photosynthesis.

Studies of the chemistry of ancient rocks show that Earth’s atmosphere lacked abundant free oxygen until about 2 billion years ago, despite the presence of plants releasing oxygen by photosynthesis. Apparently, chemical reactions with Earth’s crust removed the oxygen gas as quickly as it formed. Slowly, however, the increasing evolutionary sophistication of life led to a growth in the plant population and thus increased oxygen production. At the same time, it appears that increased geological activity led to heavy erosion on our planet’s surface. This buried much of the plant carbon before it could recombine with oxygen to form CO2.

Free oxygen began accumulating in the atmosphere about 2 billion years ago, and the increased amount of this gas led to the formation of Earth’s ozone layer (recall that ozone is a triple molecule of oxygen, O3), which protects the surface from deadly solar ultraviolet light. Before that, it was unthinkable for life to venture outside the protective oceans, so the landmasses of Earth were barren.

The presence of oxygen, and hence ozone, thus allowed colonization of the land. It also made possible a tremendous proliferation of animals, which lived by taking in and using the organic materials produced by plants as their own energy source.

As animals evolved in an environment increasingly rich in oxygen, they were able to develop techniques for breathing oxygen directly from the atmosphere. We humans take it for granted that plenty of free oxygen is available in Earth’s atmosphere, and we use it to release energy from the food we take in. Although it may seem funny to think of it this way, we are lifeforms that have evolved to breathe in the waste product of plants. It is plants and related microbes that are the primary producers, using sunlight to create energy-rich “food” for the rest of us.

On a planetary scale, one of the consequences of life has been a decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide. In the absence of life, Earth would probably have an atmosphere dominated by CO2, like Mars or Venus. But living things, in combination with high levels of geological activity, have effectively stripped our atmosphere of most of this gas.

The Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming

We have a special interest in the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere because of the key role this gas plays in retaining heat from the Sun through a process called the greenhouse effect. To understand how the greenhouse effect works, consider the fate of sunlight that strikes the surface of Earth. The light penetrates our atmosphere, is absorbed by the ground, and heats the surface layers. At the temperature of Earth’s surface, that energy is then reemitted as infrared or heat radiation (Figure 8.17). However, the molecules of our atmosphere, which allow visible light through, are good at absorbing infrared energy. As a result, CO2 (along with methane and water vapor) acts like a blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere and impeding its flow back to space. To maintain an energy balance, the temperature of the surface and lower atmosphere must increase until the total energy radiated by Earth to space equals the energy received from the Sun. The more CO2 there is in our atmosphere, the higher the temperature at which Earth’s surface reaches a new balance.

Illustration of the Greenhouse Effect. This diagram shows the Earth’s surface labeled at the bottom. A cloud layer is drawn spanning the width of the figure. Sunlight is represented as straight black arrows coming down from the top left. Two arrows on the far-left travel through the clouds to strike the surface. Where they strike the surface, wavy arrows are drawn moving upward away from the surface. The wavy arrows indicate infrared or heat radiation. The heat from one of the Sun’s rays goes up through the cloud layer and into space. The heat from the other ray is reflected from the bottom of the clouds and back toward the surface, heating the atmosphere. A third arrow of Sunlight strikes the top of the cloud layer and is reflected back into space.
Figure 8.17 How the Greenhouse Effect Works. Sunlight that penetrates to Earth’s lower atmosphere and surface is reradiated as infrared or heat radiation, which is trapped by greenhouse gases such as water vapor, methane, and CO2 in the atmosphere. The result is a higher surface temperature for our planet.

The greenhouse effect in a planetary atmosphere is similar to the heating of a gardener’s greenhouse or the inside of a car left out in the Sun with the windows rolled up. In these examples, the window glass plays the role of greenhouse gases, letting sunlight in but reducing the outward flow of heat radiation. As a result, a greenhouse or car interior winds up much hotter than would be expected from the heating of sunlight alone. On Earth, the current greenhouse effect elevates the surface temperature by about 23 °C. Without this greenhouse effect, the average surface temperature would be well below freezing and Earth would be locked in a global ice age.

That’s the good news; the bad news is that the heating due to the greenhouse effect is increasing. Modern industrial society depends on energy extracted from burning fossil fuels. In effect, we are exploiting the energy-rich material created by photosynthesis tens of millions of years ago. As these ancient coal and oil deposits are oxidized (burned using oxygen), large quantities of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. The problem is exacerbated by the widespread destruction of tropical forests, which we depend on to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and replenish our supply of oxygen. In the past century of increased industrial and agricultural development, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased by about 30% and continues to rise at more than 0.5% per year.

Before the end of the present century, Earth’s CO2 level is predicted to reach twice the value it had before the industrial revolution (Figure 8.18). The consequences of such an increase for Earth’s surface and atmosphere (and the creatures who live there) are likely to be complex changes in climate, and may be catastrophic for many species. Many groups of scientists are now studying the effects of such global warming with elaborate computer models, and climate change has emerged as the greatest known threat (barring nuclear war) to both industrial civilization and the ecology of our planet.

Graph of the Increase of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide over Time. The vertical axis at left is labeled “CO2 Concentration (ppm)”, and goes from 320 at bottom to 400 at top in increments of 20. The horizontal axis is labeled “Year”, and goes from 1960 at left to just beyond 2010 at right, in increments of 10. A nearly straight black line begins in 1960 at 320 ppm and rises inexorably to 400 ppm in 2010. Over-plotted on the black line is a jagged red line which connects the data points that lie above and below the averaged black line. The data points capture the seasonal variations that exist due to the loss of foliage in winter.
Figure 8.18 Increase of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide over Time. Scientists expect that the amount of CO2 will double its preindustrial level before the end of the twenty-first century. Measurements of the isotopic signatures of this added CO2 demonstrate that it is mostly coming from burning fossil fuels. (credit: modification of work by NOAA)

Already climate change is widely apparent. Around the world, temperature records are constantly set and broken; all but one of the hottest recorded years have taken place since 2000. Glaciers are retreating, and the Arctic Sea ice is now much thinner than when it was first explored with nuclear submarines in the 1950s. Rising sea levels (from both melting glaciers and expansion of the water as its temperature rises) pose one of the most immediate threats, and many coastal cities have plans to build dikes or seawalls to hold back the expected flooding. The rate of temperature increase is without historical precedent, and we are rapidly entering “unknown territory” where human activities are leading to the highest temperatures on Earth in more than 50 million years.

Human Impacts on Our Planet

Earth is so large and has been here for so long that some people have trouble accepting that humans are really changing the planet, its atmosphere, and its climate. They are surprised to learn, for example, that the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels is 100 times greater than that emitted by volcanoes. But, the data clearly tell the story that our climate is changing rapidly, and that almost all of the change is a result of human activity.

This is not the first time that humans have altered our environment dramatically. Some of the greatest changes were caused by our ancestors, before the development of modern industrial society. If aliens had visited Earth 50,000 years ago, they would have seen much of the planet supporting large animals of the sort that now survive only in Africa. The plains of Australia were occupied by giant marsupials such as diprododon and zygomaturus (the size of our elephants today), and a species of kangaroo that stood 10 feet high. North America and North Asia hosted mammoths, saber tooth cats, mastodons, giant sloths, and even camels. The Islands of the Pacific teemed with large birds, and vast forests covered what are now the farms of Europe and China. Early human hunters killed many large mammals and marsupials, early farmers cut down most of the forests, and the Polynesian expansion across the Pacific doomed the population of large birds.

An even greater mass extinction is underway as a result of rapid climate change. In recognition of our impact on the environment, scientists have proposed giving a new name to the current epoch, the anthropocine, when human activity started to have a significant global impact. Although not an officially approved name, the concept of “anthropocine” is useful for recognizing that we humans now represent the dominant influence on our planet’s atmosphere and ecology, for better or for worse.

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