It never ceases to amaze me how Earth’s systems almost always have a way to recalibrate themselves after being knocked out of balance. For example, the human body knows when a foreign pathogen has entered its systems, and it will send fighter cells, heat itself, and work to dispel the pathogen until it is gone. Our systems have an innate ability to create balance and equilibrium. Natural instincts guide us toward self-preservation.
Well, it turns out the environment has similar self-preservational mechanisms. A recent study has revealed that a unique type of molecule, called a Criegee (no idea how that is pronounced) intermediate, may actually help to counteract climate change. These bioradicals, named after German chemist Rudolf Criegee, are “short-lived molecules that form in the Earth’s atmosphere when ozone reacts with alkenes (an alkene=an unsaturated chemical compound).” Scientists have known about these molecules for years, but they are only just now realizing how they interact with various atmospheric compounds – particularly pollutants. But, researchers found a way to create these Criegee intermediates in a lab, enabling scientists to run experiments reacting the intermediates with compounds like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide – common pollutants. Apparently, when the Criegee intermediates interact with pollutants, they create tiny aerosol particles that can reflect solar radiation back into space! And, they do this much more quickly and efficiently than anyone had previously thought.
Carl Percival, co-author of the study, concludes that, “the ecosystem is negating climate change more efficiently than we thought it was,” but Percival also cautions that, “The most important message here is that we need to protect the ecosystems we have left” because 90% of alkenes in the Earth’s atmosphere come from Earth’s ecosystems.
How amazing is that?! When we release pollutants into the atmosphere (which we know leads to heat being trapped inside the atmosphere), the Earth actually has a defense mechanism to reflect back some of the solar energy trying to enter the atmosphere. When its systems are out of equilibrium, the Earth works to correct the imbalance. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is having trouble keeping up with the amount of pollutants our growing industrialized population is releasing into the air because we know that the average global temperature has in fact been rising.
But, think what kind of implications these findings could have on future work to counteract climate change! While Percival notes that the scientific community is not currently able to use these intermediates in geoengineering to proactively create aerosols and thus promote global cooling, I think the idea of augmenting Earth’s natural systems to protect itself has real potential.
I know that’s a lot of information, but here are my takeaways:
1. The Earth knows how to protect itself and has its own method of defending against climate change.
2. We are currently putting too much stress on the Earth’s systems, and it is not able to keep up with the rate at which the global population is releasing emissions.
3. We should utilize Earth’s existing systems in our efforts to fight climate change, but – until we are able to do so – we need to protect the Earth and its ecosystems as best we can.
Too often we view the Earth as a backdrop, something static and inanimate. Instead, we should consider the Earth as a dynamic system that interacts and intertwines with us in ways we may not always see. As soon as we begin to work with Earth’s natural systems, rather than trying to work around them, I think we will begin to make real progress in our struggle with climate change.