Artificial volcanic machines and the imbalance of the geological carbon cycle

This is the fourth article in a series on the mechanics of the natural carbon cycle. Please also see the review article – Nature’s betterment solutions are the key to solving the climate crisis – the Earth cycle article – The solution to the climate emergency is under our feet – as well as the third from the series – The Power of the Oceans to Mitigate Climate Change.

My main driver for writing this series has been discussions with a number of entrepreneurs and scientists who are building businesses and developing technologies that use what I call “Nature Enhancement Solutions(NeS) to mitigate climate change and restore the ecosystem.

NeS technologies rely on natural processes that have been capturing and using atmospheric carbon for hundreds of millions of years in what is known as the carbon cycle. I believe that NeS technologies represent the best chance for humanity to thrive and survive into the next century and beyond.

To understand why the concept of NeS is so appealing, one must understand how the carbon cycle works. For a 5 minute overview of the carbon cycle, please read my first article in this series.

The Cliff’s Notes version of the story is that the carbon cycle is a natural process that circulates a fixed, finite amount of carbon through the ecosystem by means of three interlocking gears: the terrestrial carbon cycle, the carbon cycle marine and the geological carbon cycle. .

This article is about the geological cycle of carbon – the slowest and by far the most massive cog in the cogs of the Earth.

The slow speed – The geological cycle

Re-reading my articles on the terrestrial (fast) and marine (slower) carbon cycles, the reader will recall that there were a few processes highlighted as “more or less permanent” because they allowed each of these cycles to interact with the geological cycle. .

In the earth cycle we had…

  • Dead organic matter buried in a bog.
  • Frozen dead organic matter in permafrost.

In the marine cycle, we had…

  • Dead organic matter at the bottom of the ocean.
  • Shells or skeletons of calcium carbonate.

The way carbon enters the geologic cycle from the terrestrial and marine cycles is roughly the same.

Each process requires enough time for the tectonic plates to move (tens of millions of years) and a lot of pressure. Depending on the source material, geological stores of carbon fall into one of two main types: a fast form of fossil carbon (hydrocarbons) and a bulk form of fossil carbon (limestone and chalk).

Chunky Fossilized Coal

Let’s start with large chunks of fossilized carbon, all of which come from the calcium carbonate found in seashells and coral skeletons.

When the squishy things in shells or skeletons die, the calcium carbonate structures that protected the organisms weaken and break. The tides deposit broken shells and corals in some areas. Over the years and years, more and more of this shell detritus accumulates on top of the shells already there.

Once the pile of this material reaches about 100 meters deep, the seashells at the bottom of the pile begin to smash together until they form a hard, solid stone. This is what we call limestone or its cousin, chalk.

The more shells accumulate, the thicker the layer of limestone becomes, until we have outcrops of limestone several hundred meters thick.

Limestone and the associated calcium carbonate stone represent the largest stock of carbon sequestered on earth.* As long as it remains in the ocean, carbon in this form is more or less permanently sequestered.

Zippy Fossilized Carbon – Hydrocarbons

Large chunks of fossilized carbon are created by things that start with large chunks – shells and coral skeletons. Zippy Fossilized Carbon is created by things that start out squishy – dead organic matter, most of which is plants.

In the case of squishy things, living things die and are buried before they have a chance to decompose much or not at all, and then other things in the same state pile up on top of the original things. As the pile gets thicker and thicker, the spongy substance at the bottom becomes so compacted that it turns into mud.

So far, the process of making fast fossil carbon is much like that of making large fossil carbon, except that the latter is compacted into stone while the former is compacted into mud.

When this sludge sits around long enough and is heated to the correct temperature, coal (in the case of peat and permafrost), oil or gas is created by the creation of an intermediate substance called Kerogen. The specific form of hydrocarbon created depends very much on the cooking temperature.

Once these hydrocarbons are created, they are naturally sequestered almost permanently in the earth.

Geological carbon release in the airshed

There is a huge amount of both bulky and fast fossilized carbon in the earth’s crust. As mentioned above, most of this huge carbon pool stays in place and does not circulate in terrestrial or marine systems. However, some geological carbon eventually enters the atmosphere naturally after several million years.

When tectonic plates move, the massive limestone formations that used to lie beneath the ocean can sometimes lift up and be exposed to air and rain. When this is the case, the carbon molecules on the surface of the stone can peel off in a process called “weathering”. Weathering forces the carbon atoms in the bulky geological fossil carbon back into the airshed.

The other way geologically sequestered carbon interacts with the atmospheric carbon pool is through volcanic or other explosive processes like the worrisome methane bombs explode in the arctic. When such an eruption occurs, all the carbon trapped in the rocks ends up being released.

The most notable release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in recorded history is a period approximately 56 million years before present called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). (During this event, there was a massive increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and an increase in global average temperature of 5-8°C.)

There is still academic debate surrounding the causes of PETM, but the best candidates all are related to geological processes (deep sea methane leaks, volcanic eruptions and coal gasification caused by volcanic eruptions).

Essentially, once carbon is sequestered in fossil form, the only way it is released in large quantities is through fairly rare events. There are a few places in the ocean and on land where oil seeps to the surface (think La Brea Tar Pits), but the volume of emissions caused by this mechanism is small and is easily absorbed by terrestrial and marine mechanisms of the carbon cycle.

Artificial volcanic machines

The reason why human civilization is in such a mess in terms of climate change and the consequent collapse of biodiversity because we have massively accelerated the transfer of carbon from the geological basin to the atmospheric basin.

Namely, through our love of automatic garage door openers, SUVs, climate-controlled homes, speedy commutes, fully charged iPhones, and all the other marvels of modern life, we continue to poke holes in the earth’s crust and tapping into fossilized carbon stocks. to refine and burn.

By fueling our civilization with fossil fuels, we are essentially creating millions of tiny volcanoes. In doing so, we are releasing stocks of carbon in a rush that would otherwise have been locked up in a very long cycle geological process – trickling out over the next few million years. **

Terrestrial and marine cycles work as they always have (except where our agriculture, livestock and land use policies have diminished their ability to sequester carbon…), but they simply cannot tracking the massive amount of extra carbon pumped into the atmosphere by our man-made volcanic machines.

The best metaphor I can think of to illustrate the current situation is provided by this estimable 20and philosopher of the century, Lucille Ball. In the clip that follows, Lucille depicts the terrestrial and marine carbon cycles – madly trying to deal with geological carbon coming out too quickly on the conveyor belt.

Nature Enhancement Opportunities

With this understanding of carbon and the terrestrial, marine and geological gears that make up the carbon cycle, let’s now turn to the technologies that have the potential to help nature help itself.

Over the next few articles in this series, we’ll examine the enormous potential of agriculture and animal husbandry to sequester excess atmospheric carbon. Some smart and experienced people argue for the idea that we can sequester all our planet’s excess atmospheric carbon dioxide by making some pretty simple changes to the way we manage land and agricultural processes.

The changes are simple, but, thanks to corporate and government inertia and the structural power of incumbents, they may not be easy. It is a moral imperative that we push hard for these changes – no less than our very civilization is at stake.

Smart investors take note.


* Some scientists have shown that the greatest store of carbon can be trapped in the outer core of the earth, but this carbon is not available for the carbon cycle.

** This idea about fossil fuels is not new, by the way. Nor is it a story “made up” by Al Gore or the Chinese. The first guys understanding that burning fossil fuels would upset the geological and atmospheric carbon balance were old men when Abe Lincoln was still chopping logs on his father’s Indiana homestead.

James G. Williams