“Name That Extinction Event”
The researcher marveled at her discovery. It was all so elegant. The equation made perfect sense. Water plus carbon dioxide–in conjunction with sunlight–would yield all the food they needed. World hunger would end overnight. One simple gene splice and everyone could make their own food on demand.
Her colleague tapped the end of the equation. “There’s a problem. The food will be infinite, yes, and practically free. But what about this byproduct? Technically it’s poisonous, and it could lead to global cooling.”
The researcher waved him off. “Oh, I’m sure a little extra oxygen in the atmosphere won’t hurt anyone.”
Did you guess The Great Oxygenation Event? If so, you’re right!
“Anoxia” means a lack of oxygen. Medically, this could mean a lack of oxygen in the blood, brain, or in the muscles. If you rely on aerobic respiration (which, if you’re human, you do), then anoxia is a Very Bad Thing. But lots of creatures out there feel the same way about oxygen as we do about carbon dioxide or methane. Hidden away in the most extreme environments on Earth, we find these extremophiles, creatures that thrive under conditions that seem hostile to life. For example, anaerobic bacteria that live in our bowels are responsible for the, ahem, methane we expel.
These anaerobes used to rule the world. Back in the day, the Earth’s atmosphere contained practically no oxygen and tons of methane. Like carbon dioxide, methane’s a greenhouse gas, but it retains even more heat than carbon dioxide. If carbon dioxide’s a light jacket, then methane’s a parka. This really wasn’t a problem for the extremophiles since they thrived in these conditions.
Enter some enterprising cyanobacteria. These little guys pioneered the art of photosynthesis, harvesting the power of the sun to make food. As the cyanobacteria pumped out oxygen like a boss, the methane in the atmosphere converted to carbon dioxide, and gradually the oxygen levels rose as well, causing a drop in global temperatures. These conditions led to global freezing and mass extinction of many forms of anaerobic life.
If cyanobacteria were sentient, you have to wonder if they’d think about the ramifications of inventing photosynthesis. Would they believe their small actions could have such a big impact on the world? Would they hold debates on climate change and weigh the benefits against the costs? Would they have any pity or regret for driving the anaerobes to such hard times, in some cases literally living in crap for survival?
But I’m sure a little extra oxygen in the atmosphere isn’t going to hurt anyone.
In the wake of last week’s historic high benchmark of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this is worth thinking about. What questions should shape our ethic for how we treat our environment?
- 400 (slate.com)
- Carbon dioxide is stealing our oxygen (measuredmass.com)
- World passes 400 ppm carbon dioxide level milestone: Experts say ‘we’re stuck’ with global warming (theprovince.com)