Story 5. Carbo Is Released
Deep within a large cave, Carbo the carbon molecule slept peacefully. It might be hard for an outsider to imagine, but at one time Carbo had actually been part of a large dinosaur, a Triceratops. In fact, he had many friends like him who also had been part of that prehistoric beast.
Eventually the Triceratops had passed away of old age, but Carbo lived on, even as the animal decomposed and became part of the soil. Eventually Carbo and his friends had found themselves buried deep in the ground. Over time, Carbo became part of a huge group of other carbon atoms, all taking a sixty-million-year-long nap in a coal deposit.
Sixty million years is a long time to sleep, and when, in the 19th century Carbo was finally jostled out of his long slumber, he was not quick to awaken fully.
“What was that?” he mumbled. He sensed movement but couldn’t see anything in the dark. “I must be having a bad dream.” He closed his eyes and turned over as sleep overtook him again.
Carbo didn’t realize that what had nudged him from his dreams was a coal miner. The year was 1870 and the miner had dug him out his cave along with many of his friends. Carbo’s peaceful nap was about to end.
A short time later he awoke again, this time with a start. A sharp hot pain brought him suddenly and rudely out of his dreams. “Where am I?” Carbo wailed as he looked around. He felt a constant jostling and a rhythmic clatter somewhere beneath him. He was inside a hot metallic enclosure, but through cracks in the metal he could see fields and shrubs zipping by. Carbo was being burned in the engine of a locomotive heading across the U.S. prairie, moving westward towards the Rockies.
Suddenly Carbo rose into the air, up through some sort of tunnel, and then emerged into a bright blue sky. The burning sensation was immediately gone, and he felt a sense of freedom and euphoria.
“I have been released!” Carbo shouted at the top of his microscopic lungs. Tumbling head over heels and circulating through the air with other fellow carbon dioxide molecules, he suddenly felt purposeful. He was helping to warm good old planet Earth. “Yes!” Carbo declared. This is my job! This is what I will live for.”
If powerful microscopes had existed in the 1800s, humans might have been able to see Carbo’s appearance, which looked like one large ball with two slightly smaller balls attached to it. The larger ball was an atom of carbon dioxide and the smaller ones were oxygen atoms, thus his nickname, CO2. Carbo’s face was ghastly, with dark piercing eyes and a mouth filled with crooked teeth.
For some reason this molecule was more intelligent than his fellow carbon dioxide molecules. Carbo knew this about himself, though he was not haughty or arrogant about it. Not yet, anyway. Carbo only knew that even though his friends looked just like him, most could not feel or think on his sophisticated level.
Having been trapped for sixty million years, Carbo understood that if he wanted to stay free, he would need to stay in the air and out of the way of plants and trees. He knew from experience that they would breathe him in and trap him again if they could. Long ago, during the Cretaceous period of Earth, a fern had inhaled and trapped him. Later, that fern was lunch for the Triceratops.
It’s a good thing that plants couldn’t read Carbo’s mind. If they could, they would hear him say, “I don’t like you, plants. You split my brothers into carbon atoms. You trap carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. You are my enemy.”
Carbo spent his first decades of freedom roaming the atmosphere. During the 1870s and 1880s, Carbo noticed that more and more of his brethren were being released by those silly humans who insisted on digging up coal and then burning the stuff. He also discovered that like him, only the prehistoric carbon molecules released into the air had any feelings or intelligence at all. For some reason carbon that was already part of the air before the Industrial Age, that is, before humans started burning coal, simply had no life.
Carbo didn’t think too much about that. Nor did he think much about humans either, other than the fact that he was quite thankful for them. Only they could find the coal deposits and continue to release his friends. So on occasion, Carbo breezed around their heads whispering encouragement to them, hoping he could help them find more coal deposits and thus release more molecules like him.
“Think of all the friends I could lead,” he said to himself, “if only they were all released from their deep underground traps.”
Carbo knew the number would be in the trillions.
In the real world, carbon dioxide molecules, by their nature, trap enough heat near the Earth so that the planet does not freeze and so life can exist. That’s why scientists call carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas. There need to be enough carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere to keep the climate just right for current life to exist on the Earth, but if there are too many, the climate of the planet begins to warm unnaturally. That is what is known as the “greenhouse effect.” The burning of fossil fuels since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s has caused levels of CO2 to steadily rise, threatening life as we know it on Earth today. Carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels actually has a subtly different chemistry than that already in the atmosphere before the Industrial Revolution. That is one of the ways climate scientists are able to trace the amount of carbon pollution in the air.
The Climate Guy
The text and artwork are copyright by Guy Walton. I would like to get this book published. Please drop me a note if you are willing to help.
To see the rest of the World of Thermo stories click: http://www.guyonclimate.com/category/worldofthermo/