Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"CO2 Rising" by Tyler Volk

When I started writing this post, I had just finished reading Tyler Volk's book CO2 Rising. Now it's been more than a month, and it's time to get this post up online. The author has kindly granted me permission to reproduce some of the images from the book.

CO2 Rising has got some stuff that sets it apart from other global warming books.

To start with, it's more focused on helping readers understand the carbon cycle rather than outright climate science. To do this, Volk employs a heurisitic device of naming certain carbon atoms. He names one 'Dave' (in tribute to Dave Keeling, who established the atmospheric CO2 observatory on Mauna Loa). Dave gets washed out of limestone and into the sea, he diffuses into the air, he gets sucked into a plant stoma and locked up in plant sugar. He gets fermented in a batch of beer, and drunk by the author, then oxidized and diffuses across the lung membrane and is exhaled back into the atmosphere, and so on. There are three other carbon atoms who also get names, and the reader gets to follow them on their adventures through the biosphere over tens of thousands of years. Some have been locked up in fossil fuel deposits for millions of years.

While I've heard some dismiss this narrative technique as a gimmick, I liked it. It drives home the point that carbon atoms "live" forever, and are simply jumping from carbon reservoir to reservoir through chemical reactions and physical flow. Bonds form and are broken. Energy is absorbed, energy is released. Now Dave is in a coccolithophore, now he's in a tree, now he's being oxidized in a cooking fire. You really get a sense of the complexity and the limits of the carbon cycle.

After these physical pathways are established, the latter half of the book explores the manifestations of accumulating carbon dioxide in the world. The reader, with their new sense of the robust & complicated nature of the carbon cycle, can start looking at the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

I was particularly impressed with Volk's pedagogical style by "zooming out" from a series of graphs of carbon dioxide, granting a tremendous perspective on how out-of-whack our modern CO2 concentrations really are. He does this by starting with the present day and backing out further and further into the past. The saga begins with the familiar Mauna Loa curve:

Then he puts that in perspective by showing CO2 data from Law Dome ice, which overlaps with Mauna Loa:

...But Law Dome's record goes back further than that:

...And where Law Dome's record ends, the ice of Taylor Dome takes over:

...And it takes us back further still:

Finally, we get to Vostok's record, which takes us back (in this graph) 400, 000 years:

I think that's a pretty impressive way of presenting this data -- building it out bit by bit, starting with the familiar and then going waaaaaaaaaayyyy back into the past.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book. I recommend that you read it. Say hi to 'Dave' for me!

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Blogger frankoanderson said...

I've got to read that book. I remember seeing a similar graph used by Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth" where he had to use an electric lift to reach the top of the scale to show the modern levels of CO2.

May 17, 2009 9:34 PM  

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