The Role of Carbon Dioxide

March 4, 2005

CARBON dioxide is a so-called “greenhouse”gas, meaning that it – along with othergases such as water vapor, methane, nitrousoxide and ozone – works like a greenhouse.When the sun heats the earth, greenhousegases trap in the atmosphere the heat energyradiating from the planet.This greenhouse effect is necessary tokeep earth at an average temperature of 60degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).Otherwise, life as we know it would not be possible.Carbon dioxide therefore plays an importantrole in regulating temperature on a globalscale.However, since the beginning of the industrialrevolution, concentrations of the gas in theatmosphere have increased an estimated 20-30% because of the burning of fossil fuels (oil,gas and coal).What this increase means is one of thecornerstones of the global warming discussion.Because plants use sunlight to transformcarbon dioxide and water into carbohydratesduring photosynthesis, and vegetation is abundantand fast growing in the tropics, tropicalforests play a particularly large role when itcomes to maintaining a balance betweenatmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen.Forests also produce carbon dioxide.Carbon is found in all living things. Itexists in the greatest levels in sediments andoceans. When plants and animals breath, dieand decay, their carbon is released back intothe atmosphere as carbon dioxide, or it isreleased as fossil fuels (during decay) or asinorganic compounds such as calcium carbonate(limestone).All of this together, including plants’absorption of carbon dioxide, is called the carboncycle, and it is one key to understandingthe true breadth of human impact on climatechange and the possible effects.“The importance of tropical forest in thecarbon cycle is known, but it is not quantified,”said eco-physiologist Javier Espeleta, aresearcher with the Organization for TropicalStudies (OTS).

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