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New book suggests Earth perhaps not such a benevolent mother after all

o legend, he left her and in revenge she killed their two children.

Ward, a UW professor of biology and of Earth and space sciences, says numerous mass extinctions show that our planet behaves in somewhat the same way. For example:

  • The evolution of oxygen-producing organisms twice plunged Earth into ice ages as carbon dioxide, crucial for photosynthesis, was stripped from the atmosphere.
  • The evolution of the first true animals caused extinction of most stromatolites, layers of microbes living in sediment in the oceans' intertidal zones. The result was somewhat more complex life forms, but a vastly smaller volume of living matter.
  • The evolution of the first forests 400 million years ago is considered one of the great events in Earth history. But tree roots pushed into subsurface rocks, exposing them to increased weathering. The weathered elements again stripped carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and plunged the Earth into a 90 million-year ice age.

"The irony is that we have way too much carbon dioxide right now, but we should stash it in a bank because we're going to need it," Ward said. "The end of life as we know it is when we reach just 10 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

Currently, carbon dioxide is at 380 parts per million and rising, creating a greenhouse effect that most climate scientists say will greatly increase temperatures around the world, with some severe consequences. For example, with the melting of mountain and polar ice sheets, the world's most-productive agricultural land will be submerged and humans will struggle to find food, Ward said.

He noted that throughout Earth's history, carbon has been stripped from the atmosphere and stored in trees, rocks, even the oceans. He said those processes will continue until atmospheric carbon dioxide drops to 10 parts per million, a point at which no plants can live. Once plants are gone, within 20 million years the oxygen w

Contact: Vince Stricherz
University of Washington

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