Effects of fuel and forest conservation on future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide

James C.G. Walker, James F. Kasting

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34 Scopus citations


We develop a numerical simulation of the global biogeochemical cycles of carbon that works over time scales extending from years to millions of years. The ocean is represented by warm and cold shallow water reservoirs, a thermocline reservoir, and deep Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific reservoirs. The atmosphere is characterized by a single carbon reservoir and the global biota by a single biomass reservoir. The simulation includes the rock cycle, distinguishing between shelf carbonate and pelagic carbonate precipitation, with distinct lysocline depths in the three deep ocean reservoirs. Dissolution of pelagic carbonates in response to decrease in lysocline depth is included. The simulation is tuned to reproduce the observed radiocarbon record resulting from atomic weapon testing. It is tuned also to reproduce the distribution of dissolved phosphate and total dissolved carbon between the ocean reservoirs as well as the carbon isotope ratios for both 13C and 14C in ocean and atmosphere. The simulation reproduces reasonably well the historical record of carbon dioxide partial pressure as well as the atmospheric isotope ratios for 13C and 14C over the last 200 yr as these have changed in response to fossil fuel burning and land use changes, principally forest clearance. The agreements between observation and calculation involves the assumption of a carbon dioxide fertilization effect in which the rate of production of biomass increases with increasing carbon dioxide partial pressure. At present the fertilization effect of increased carbon dioxide outweighs the effects of forest clearance, so the biota comprises an overall sink of atmosph ric carbon dioxide sufficiently large to bring the budget approximately into balance. This simulation is used to examine the future evolution of carbon dioxide and its sensitivity to assumptions about the rate of fossil fuel burning and of forest clearance. Over times extending up to thousands of years, the results are insensitive to the formulation of the rock cycle and to the dissolution of deep sea carbonate sediments. Atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to increase as long fossil fuel is burned at a significant rate, because the rate of fossil fuel production of carbon dioxide far exceeds the rates at which geochemical processes can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The maximum concentration of carbon dioxide achieved in the atmosphere depends on the total amount of fossil fuel burned, but only weakly on the rate of burning. The future course of atmospheric carbon dioxide is, however, very sensitive to the fate of the forests in this simulation because of the important role assigned to carbon dioxide fertilization of plant growth rate. Forest clearance drives up atmospheric carbon dioxide not only by converting biomass into atmospheric carbon dioxide but more importantly by reducing the capacity of the biota to sequester fossil fuel carbon dioxide. In this simulation, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could be sustained indefinitely below 500 parts per million (ppm) if fossil fuel combustion rates were immediately cut from their present value of 5 × 1014 m/y to 0.2 × 1014 m/y (a factor of 25 reduction) and if further forest clearance were halted. If neither of these conditions is met and if we consume most of the world's fossil fuel reserves, peak carbon dioxide concentrations of 1000-2000 ppm are probable within the next few centuries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)151-189
Number of pages39
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1992

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Oceanography


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