New Data Show How Phytoplankton Pumps Carbon Out of the Atmosphere at an Enormous Scale

One of the most fascinating things about planet Earth is the way that life shapes the Earth and the Earth shapes life. We only have to look back to the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) of 2.4 billion years ago to see how lifeforms have shaped the Earth. In that event, phytoplanktons called cyanobacteria pumped the atmosphere with oxygen, extinguishing most life on Earth, and paving the way for the development of multicellular life.

Early Earth satisfied the initial conditions for life to appear, and now, lifeforms shape the atmosphere, the landscape, and the oceans in many different ways.

At the base of many of these changes is phytoplankton.

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During Mass Extinction Events, Volcanoes Were Releasing About the Same Amount of CO2 as We Are Today

200 million years ago, a mass extinction event wiped out about 76% of all species on Earth—both terrestrial and marine. That event was called the end-Triassic extinction, or the Jurassic-Triassic (J-T) extinction event. At that time, the world experienced many of the same things as Earth is facing now, including a warming climate and the acidification of the oceans.

A new paper shows that pulses of volcanic eruptions were responsible, and that those pulses released the same amount of CO2 as humans are releasing today.

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As Temperatures Increase, Forests are Having More Trouble Soaking up Carbon

On Earth, one of the most important factors regulating our climate is the carbon cycle. This refers to the processes by which carbon compounds are sequestered by biological (photosynthesis) and geological processes and released through volcanic activity and organic processes (decay and respiration). For billions of years, this cycle has kept temperatures relatively stable on Earth and allowed for life to flourish.

For the past few centuries, human activity has tipped the scales to the point that some refer to the current geological epoch as the Anthropocene. According to a new study by an international team of researchers, human activity is also leading to a situation where tropical rainforests (a major sequester of carbon dioxide) are not only losing their ability to soak up carbon but could actually be adding to the problem in the coming years.

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This Artificial Leaf Turns Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

There is no doubt that climate change is a very serious (and worsening) problem. According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), even if all the industrialized nations of the world became carbon neutral overnight, the problem would continue to get worse. In short, it’s not enough to stop pumping megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere; we also have to start removing what we’ve already put there.

This is where the technique known as carbon capture (or carbon removal) comes into play. Taking their cue from nature, an international team of researchers from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, have created an “artificial leaf” that mimics the carbon-scrubbing abilities of the real thing. But rather than turning atmospheric CO2 into a source of fuel for itself, the leaf converts it into a useful alternative fuel.

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Today is the Highest Concentration of Atmospheric CO2 in Human History. 415 Parts Per Million. Last Time it Was This High, There Were Trees at the South Pole

Think about this for a minute: We humans and our emissions are helping turn back the climatological clock by 2 or 3 million years, possibly more. Not since that time, called the Pliocene Epoch, has the CO2 ppm risen above 400.

Way back then, the CO2 helped keep the Earth’s temperature 2 to 3 degrees C warmer than it is now. And the Earth was a much different place back then.

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Carl Sagan’s Theory Of Early Mars Warming Gets New Attention

Ah, the good old days. ESA’s Mars Express imaged Reull Vallis, a river-like structure believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant Martian past, cuts a steep-sided channel on its way towards the floor of the Hellas basin. A thicker atmosphere that included methane and hydrogen in addition to carbon dioxide may have allowed liquid water to flow on Mars at different times in the past according to a new study. Credit and copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Water. It’s always about the water when it comes to sizing up a planet’s potential to support life. Mars may possess some liquid water in the form of occasional salty flows down crater walls,  but most appears to be locked up in polar ice or hidden deep underground. Set a cup of the stuff out on a sunny Martian day today and depending on conditions, it could quickly freeze or simply bubble away to vapor in the planet’s ultra-thin atmosphere.

These rounded pebbles got their shapes after polished in a long-ago river in Gale Crater. They were discovered by Curiosity rover at the Hottah site. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Evidence of abundant liquid water in former flooded plains and sinuous river beds can be found nearly everywhere on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover has found mineral deposits that only form in liquid water and pebbles rounded by an ancient stream that once burbled across the floor of Gale Crater. And therein lies the paradox.  Water appears to have gushed willy-nilly across the Red Planet 3 to 4 billion years ago, so what’s up today?

Blame Mars’ wimpy atmosphere. Thicker, juicier air and the increase in atmospheric pressure that comes with it would keep the water in that cup stable. A thicker atmosphere would also seal in the heat, helping to keep the planet warm enough for liquid water to pool and flow.

Different ideas have been proposed to explain the putative thinning of the air including the loss of the planet’s magnetic field, which serves as a defense against the solar wind.

This figure shows a cross-section of the planet Mars revealing an inner, high density core buried deep within the interior. Magnetic field lines are drawn in blue, showing the global scale magnetic field associated with a dynamic core. Mars must have had such a field long ago, but today it’s not evident. Perhaps the energy source that powered the early dynamo shut down. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

Convection currents within its molten nickel-iron core likely generated Mars’ original magnetic defenses. But sometime early in the planet’s history the currents stopped either because the core cooled or was disrupted by asteroid impacts. Without a churning core, the magnetic field withered, allowing the solar wind to strip away the atmosphere, molecule by molecule.

Solar wind eats away the Martian atmosphere

Measurements from NASA’s current MAVEN mission indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator.

This graph shows the percent amount of the five most abundant gases in the atmosphere of Mars, as measured by the  Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on the Curiosity rover in October 2012. The season was early spring in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, SAM/GSFC

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) suggest a different, less cut-and-dried scenario. Based on their studies, early Mars may have been warmed now and again by a powerful greenhouse effect. In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers found that interactions between methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the early Martian atmosphere may have created warm periods when the planet could support liquid water on its surface.

The team first considered the effects of CO2, an obvious choice since it comprises 95% of Mars’ present day atmosphere and famously traps heat. But when you take into account that the Sun shone 30% fainter 4 billion years ago compared to today, CO2  alone couldn’t cut it.

“You can do climate calculations where you add CO2 and build up to hundreds of times the present day atmospheric pressure on Mars, and you still never get to temperatures that are even close to the melting point,” said Robin Wordsworth, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at SEAS, and first author of the paper.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft looks toward the night side of Saturn’s largest moon and sees sunlight scattering through the periphery of Titan’s atmosphere and forming a ring of color. The breakdown of methane at Titan into hydrogen and oxygen may also have occurred on Mars. The addition of hydrogen in the company of methane and carbon dioxide would have created a powerful greenhouse gas mixture, significantly warming the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only gas capable of preventing heat from escaping into space. Methane or CH4 will do the job, too. Billions of years ago, when the planet was more geologically active, volcanoes could have tapped into deep sources of methane and released bursts of the gas into the Martian atmosphere. Similar to what happens on Saturn’s moon Titan, solar ultraviolet light would snap the molecule in two, liberating hydrogen gas in the process.

When Wordsworth and his team looked at what happens when methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide collide and then interact with sunlight, they discovered that the combination strongly absorbed heat.

Carl Sagan, American astronomer and astronomy popularizer, first speculated that hydrogen warming could have been important on early Mars back in 1977, but this is the first time scientists have been able to calculate its greenhouse effect accurately. It is also the first time that methane has been shown to be an effective greenhouse gas on early Mars.

This awesome image of the Tharsis region of Mars taken by Mars Express shows several prominent shield volcanoes including the massive Olympus Mons (at left). Volcanoes, when they were active, could have released significant amounts of methane into Mars’ atmosphere. Click for a larger version. Credit: ESA

When you take methane into consideration, Mars may have had episodes of warmth based on geological activity associated with earthquakes and volcanoes. There have been at least three volcanic epochs during the planet’s history — 3.5 billion years ago (evidenced by lunar mare-like plains), 3 billion years ago (smaller shield volcanoes) and 1 to 2 billion years ago, when giant shield volcanoes such as Olympus Mons were active. So we have three potential methane bursts that could rejigger the atmosphere to allow for a mellower Mars.

The sheer size of Olympus Mons practically shouts massive eruptions over a long period of time. During the in-between times, hydrogen, a lightweight gas, would have continued to escape into space until replenished by the next geological upheaval.

“This research shows that the warming effects of both methane and hydrogen have been underestimated by a significant amount,” said Wordsworth. “We discovered that methane and hydrogen, and their interaction with carbon dioxide, were much better at warming early Mars than had previously been believed.”

I’m tickled that Carl Sagan walked this road 40 years ago. He always held out hope for life on Mars. Several months before he died in 1996, he recorded this:

” … maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?

Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.

As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).

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What Causes Air Pollution?

By definition, pollution refers to any matter that is “out of place”. In other words, it is what happens when toxins, contaminants, and other harmful products are introduced into an environment, disrupting its normal patterns and functions. When it comes to our atmosphere, pollution refers to the introduction of chemicals, particulates, and biological matter that can be harmful to humans, plants and animals, and cause damage to the natural environment.

Whereas some causes of pollution are entirely natural – being the result of sudden changes in temperature, seasonal changes, or regular cycles – others are the result of human impact (i.e. anthropogenic, or man-made). More and more, the effects of air pollution on our planet, especially those that result from human activity, are of great concern to developers, planners and environmental organizations, given the long-term effect they can have.

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13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13, part 5: The CO2 Partial Pressure Sensor

The Apollo 13 accident crippled the spacecraft, taking out the two main oxygen tanks in the Service Module. While the lack of oxygen caused a lack of power from the fuel cells in the Command Module, having enough oxygen to breathe in the lander rescue craft really wasn’t an issue for the crew. But having too much carbon dioxide (CO2) quickly did become a problem.

The Lunar Module, which was being used as a lifeboat for the crew, had lithium hydroxide canisters to remove the CO2 for two men for two days, but on board were three men trying to survive in the LM lifeboat for four days. After a day and a half in the LM, CO2 levels began to threaten the astronauts’ lives, ringing alarms. The CO2 came from the astronauts’ own exhalations.

Jerry Woodfill working in the Apollo Mission Evaluation Room.  Credit:  Jerry Woodfill.
Jerry Woodfill working in the Apollo Mission Evaluation Room. Credit: Jerry Woodfill.

NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill helped design and monitor the Apollo caution and warning systems. One of the systems which the lander’s warning system monitored was environmental control.

Like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide can be a ‘silent killer’ – it can’t be detected by the human senses, and it can overcome a person quickly. Early on in their work in assessing the warning system for the environmental control system, Woodfill and his co-workers realized the importance of a CO2 sensor.

“The presence of that potentially lethal gas can only be detected by one thing – an instrumentation transducer,” Woodfill told Universe Today. “I had an unsettling thought, ‘If it doesn’t work, no one would be aware that the crew is suffocating on their own breath.’”

The sensor’s job was simply to convert the content of carbon dioxide into an electrical voltage, a signal transmitted to all, both the ground controllers, and the cabin gauge.

Location of Caution And Warning System lights in the Command Module. Credit: Project Apollo - NASSP.
Location of Caution And Warning System lights in the Command Module. Credit: Project Apollo – NASSP.

“My system had two categories of alarms, one, a yellow light for caution when the astronaut could invoke a backup plan to avoid a catastrophic event, and the other, an amber warning indication of imminent life-threatening failure,” Woodfill explained. “Because onboard CO2 content rises slowly, the alarm system simply served to advise and caution the crew to change filters. We’d set the threshold or “trip-level” of the alarm system electronics to do so.”

And soon after the explosion of Apollo 13’s oxygen tank, the assessment of life-support systems determined the system for removing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the lunar module was not doing so. Systems in both the Command and Lunar Modules used canisters filled with lithium hydroxide to absorb CO2. Unfortunately the plentiful canisters in the crippled Command Module could not be used in the LM, which had been designed for two men for two days, but on board were three men trying to survive in the LM lifeboat for four days: the CM had square canisters while the LM had round ones.

The fix for the lithium hydroxide canister is discussed at NASA Mission Control prior to having the astronauts implement the procedure in space. Credit: NASA
The fix for the lithium hydroxide canister is discussed at NASA Mission Control prior to having the astronauts implement the procedure in space. Credit: NASA

As was detailed so well by Jim Lovell in his book “Lost Moon,” and subsequently portrayed in detail in the movie “Apollo 13,” a group of engineers led by Ed Smylie, who developed and tested life support systems for NASA, constructed a duct-taped-jury-rigged CO2 filter, using only what was aboard the spacecraft to convert the plentiful square filters to work in the round LM system. (You can read the details of the system and its development in our previous “13 Things” series.)

Needless to say, the story had a happy ending. The Apollo 13 accident review board reported that Mission Control gave the crew further instructions for attaching additional cartridges when needed, and the carbon dioxide partial pressure remained below 2mm Hg for the remainder of the Earth-return trip.

But the story of Jerry Woodfill and the CO2 sensor can also serve as an inspiration to anyone who feels disappointed in their career, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, feeling that perhaps what you are doing doesn’t really matter.

“I think almost everyone who came to NASA wanted to be an astronaut or a flight director, and I always felt my career was diminished by the fact that I wasn’t a flight controller or astronaut or even a guidance and navigation engineer,” Woodfill said. “I was what was called an instrumentation engineer. Others had said this is the kind of job that was superfluous.”

Woodfill worked on the spacecraft metal panels which housed the switches and gauges. “Likely, a mechanical engineer might not find such a job exciting,” he said, “and to think, I had once studied field theory, quantum electronics and other heady disciplines as a Rice electrical engineering candidate.”

NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill with Chris Kraft, former NASA flight director and manager, in early 2015. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.
NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill with Chris Kraft, former NASA flight director and manager, in early 2015. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.

Later, to add to the discouragement was a conversation with another engineer. “His comment was, ‘No one wants to be an instrumentation engineer,” Woodfill recalled, “thinking it is a dead-end assignment, best avoided if one wants to be promoted. It seemed that instrumentation was looked upon as a sort of ‘menial servant’ whose lowly job was servicing end users such as radar, communications, electrical power even guidance computers. In fact, the users could just as readily incorporate instrumentation in their devices. Then, there would be no need for an autonomous group of instrumentation guys.”

But after some changes in management and workforce, Woodfill became the lead Command Module Caution and Warning Project Engineer, as well as the Lunar Lander Caution and Warning lead – a job he thought no one else really wanted.

But he took on the job with gusto.

“I visited with a dozen or more managers of items which the warning system monitored for failure,” Woodfill said. He convened a NASA-Grumman team to consider how best to warn of CO2 and other threats. “We needed to determine at what threshold level should the warning system ring an alarm. All the components must work, starting with the CO2 sensor. The signal must pass from there through the transmitting electronics, wiring, ultimately reaching my warning system “brain” known as the Caution and Warning Electronics Assembly (CWEA).”

And so, just hours after the explosion on Apollo 13, the Mission Engineering Manager summoned Woodfill to his office.

“He wanted to discuss my warning system ringing carbon dioxide alarms,” Woodfill said. “I explained the story, placing before him the calibration curves of the CO2 Partial Pressure Transducer, showing him what this instrumentation device is telling us about the threat to the crew.”

Now, what Woodfill had once had deemed trivial was altogether essential for saving the lives of an Apollo 13 astronaut crew. Yes, instrumentation was just as important as any advanced system aboard the command ship or the lunar lander.

“And, I thought, without it, likely, no one would have known the crew was in grave danger,” said Woodfill, “let alone how to save them. Instrumentation engineering wasn’t a bad career choice after all!”

The Apollo 13 fix -- complete with duct tape -- of making a square canister fit into a round hole.  Credit: NASA
The Apollo 13 fix — complete with duct tape — of making a square canister fit into a round hole. Credit: NASA
This is an example of the team effort that saved Apollo 13: that the person who was working on the transducer years prior was just as significant as the person who came up with the ingenious duct tape solution.

And it was one of the additional things that saved Apollo 13.

Apollo 13 images via NASA. Montage by Judy Schmidt.
Apollo 13 images via NASA. Montage by Judy Schmidt.

Additional articles in this series:


Part 1: The Failed Oxygen Quantity Sensor

Part 2: Simultaneous Presence of Kranz and Lunney at the Onset of the Rescue

Part 3: Detuning the Saturn V’s 3rd Stage Radio

Part 4: Early Entry into the Lander

Part 5: The CO2 Partial Pressure Sensor

Part 6: The Mysterious Longer-Than-Expected Communications Blackout

Part 7: Isolating the Surge Tank

Part 8: The Indestructible S-Band/Hi-Gain Antenna

Part 9: Avoiding Gimbal Lock

Part 10: ‘MacGyvering’ with Everyday Items

Part 11: The Caution and Warning System

Part 12: The Trench Band of Brothers

Find all the original “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13″ (published in 2010) at this link.

Why Is Venus So Horrible?

Venus really sucks. It’s as hot as an oven with a dense, poisonous atmosphere. But how did it get that way?

Venus sucks. Seriously, it’s the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you dead in moments.

Let’s push Venus into the Sun and be done with that terrible place. Its proximity is lowering our real estate values and who knows what sort of interstellar monstrosities are going to set up shop there, and be constantly knocking on our door to borrow the mower, or a cup or sugar, or sneak into our yard at night and eat all our dolphins.

You might argue that Venus is worth saving because it’s located within the Solar System’s habitable zone, that special place where water could exist in a liquid state on the surface. But we’re pretty sure it doesn’t have any liquid water. Venus may have been better in the past, clearly it started hanging out with wrong crowd, taking a bad turn down a dark road leading it to its current state of disrepair.

Could Venus have been better in the past? And how did it go so wrong? In many ways, Venus is a twin of the Earth. It’s almost the same size and mass as the Earth, and it’s made up of roughly the same elements. And if you stood on the surface of Venus, in the brief moments before you evacuated your bowels and died horribly, you’d notice the gravity feels pretty similar.

In the ancient past, the Sun was dimmer and cooler than it is now. Cool enough that Venus was much more similar to Earth with rivers, lakes and oceans. NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft probed beneath the planet’s thick clouds and revealed that there was once liquid water on the surface of Venus. And with liquid water, there could have been life on the surface and in those oceans.

Here’s where Venus went wrong. It’s about a third closer to the Sun than Earth, and gets roughly double the solar radiation. The Sun has been slowly heating up over the millions and billions of years. At some point, the planet reached a tipping point, where the water on the surface of Venus completely evaporated into the atmosphere.

False color radar topographical map of Venus provided by Magellan. Credit: Magellan Team/JPL/NASA
False color radar topographical map of Venus provided by Magellan. Credit: Magellan Team/JPL/NASA

Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, and this only increased the global temperature, creating a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus. The ultraviolet light from the Sun split apart the water vapor into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen was light enough to escape the atmosphere of Venus into space, while the oxygen recombined with carbon to form the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere we see today. Without that hydrogen, Venus’ water is never coming back.

Are you worried about our changing climate doing that here? Don’t panic. The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere of Venus is incomprehensible. According to the IPCC, the folks studying global warming, human activities have no chance of unleashing runaway global warming. We’ll just have the regular old, really awful global warming. So, it’s okay to panic a bit, but do it in the productive way that results in your driving your car less.

The Sun is still slowly heating up. And in a billion years or so, temperatures here will get hot enough to boil the oceans away. And then, Earth and Venus will be twins again and then we can push them both into the Sun.

I know, I said the words “climate change”. Feel free to have an argument in the comments below, but play nice and bring science.