The Two-Minute Carbon Cycle

June 24th, 2011 by Holli Riebeek

In the process of researching a feature for the Earth Observatory, I always come across fascinating tidbits that just don’t quite fit into my article. For instance, there’s this great carbon calculator tool from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Early during the development of the recent¬†carbon cycle feature, I heard NASA scientist Peter Griffith speak to a group of National Park rangers.¬†Most scientists speak from slides full of data, and I fully expected Peter to do so as well. But he didn’t. He stood at the front of the group with just a banana and a piece of coal. In a matter of minutes, he demonstrated both the carbon cycle and why burning fossil fuels has such a big impact on the carbon cycle. It was a simple and powerful demonstration. At the end, he concluded that by burning fossil fuels, we move carbon from the slow, old carbon cycle to the fast, young carbon cycle.

The talk shaped the way I think about the carbon cycle. And while the analogy never made it into the article, the way he organized the ideas and his conclusion did. As I was finishing the article, a colleague shared this two-minute video Peter made based on that talk. Enjoy!

5 Responses to “The Two-Minute Carbon Cycle”

  1. Erl Happ says:

    Nice talk. Liked the concept of fast and slow carbon.

    However, too simplistic. Think of fast plants thriving in arid climates because they can absorb carbon better without transpiring water vapour. Think of greening the Earth as the scarcest atmospheric resource, the building block for all life becomes more readily available.

    And if one is to concern oneself as to why global temperature changes, and what it means for humanity and other species, the first thing that one should to do is to establish whether that is a good or a bad thing. And a warming globe is good, a very good thing because the bulk of the planet is much too cool to support the growth of plants at anywhere near optimal levels.

  2. Don BASSETT says:

    A very simple explanation of a very complex system congratulations.

  3. J Vanier says:

    So, if the plants that were made into coal millions of years ago were all eaten as rapidly as bananas today, there would be no coal today and that would be “natural”, yes? Releasing the carbon in the coal returns the carbon dioxide to today’s plants so that they can thrive like the coal forests of yesteryear giving us more bananas. I get it!

  4. William Horwood says:

    Great presentation BUT…

    The assumption is that banana Carbon Gas (CG) is ‘better’ than coal CG because there is much more of it. That may be, but (and I really, really don’t want to sound ridiculous) can we show that the amount of CG emitted from banana eating is significantly less than that from coal burning? Assuming we can, should we not also argue that all the other forms of eating that emit CG ought to be included in the equation AND added up to make comparable totals. Then we might argue that eating should be reduced (whether or not we cut coal burning) by a factor that would reduce the world obese population back to acceptable levels of individual weight. What we than have is a genuine comparison between coal and ‘bananas’ (a.k.a. food). My personal view is that obesity not only means huge quantities of food are consumed unneccessarily (with consequential CG emission) but there’s a massive cost of social and medical services arising from obesity which should be factored in to this simplistic (but reasonable) argument. The presentation would look very different, and possibly be as effective, if Peter had in his right hand a lump of coal and in his left a massively obese human being. We already get his message load and clear but, as he topples leftward and is (regrettably) crushed by the fellow human being he is using in his presenation, we would get another one as well…. In short, bananas are fine but the comparison with coal in his argument is a fallacious one.

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