By Ranil Senanayake –
There is a magic engine that produces one of the rarest substances in the known universe, free molecular Oxygen. Free molecular Oxygen or O2 is found in abundance only on one known planet, ours and it is produced by the engine that supports all life photosynthesis. The process of photosynthesis is one where the energy of the sun, streaming on our planet as sunlight, is captured by life and used to power all of its processes. The resulting formula stated as
CO2 + H2O + e => CxHxOx + O2
Where Carbon Dioxide combine with water and powered by sunlight produces solid organic matter (Carbohydrate) and free molecular Oxygen. This could very well be termed the ‘Creation Formula’, as it harnesses the power of the sun and is the basis of all life on this planet.
It is this simple action that we owe our lives and well-being to. On land, photosynthesis occurs within the leaves of plants in the oceans photosynthesis occurs within the phytoplankton. The work of which, over hundreds of million years, created our atmosphere, rich with free molecular Oxygen. The atmospheric concentration today is about 21.9%. This is an important figure as any reduction will have adverse effects on human well-being. Any loss of oxygen concentration to levels below 19% severely impacts human health. Impaired thinking and attention, reduced coordination and decreased ability for strenuous work, at levels below that there is permanent damage to heart and lungs, very poor judgement, emotional trauma. In many heavily industrialized and urbanized cities such as Mexico City or Delhi the Oxygen concentration regularly falls below the 19% threshold.
A new study by Princeton University shows Earth’s oxygen levels are on the decline. By studying the Air bubbles trapped within ice, the time of “deposition” and can be analysed for paleo-oxygen levels. The study found that the amount of oxygen found in the atmosphere is decreasing steadily by 0.7% but over the last 100 years it has suddenly declined to a comparatively speedy 0.10%. Although this decline will not cause immediate health problems globally, areas of low concentration are now beginning to appear. In highly industrialized and urbanized cities like Mexico City or New Delhi, Oxygen concentrations as low as 17% have been recorded. Living in these ‘islands’ of low Oxygen concentration will impact individuals negatively. This reality is totally ignored in the process of ‘Urban Development’.
But it is the disappearance of Oxygen from the oceans, should ring alarm bells. Ocean dead zones with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size since 1950. Again, Climate change caused by fossil fuel burning is the cause of the large-scale deoxygenation, as warmer waters hold less oxygen
In coastal regions, fertiliser, manure and sewage pollution cause algal blooms and when the algae decompose oxygen is sucked out of the water. Oceanographer Dr. Diaz states “No other variable of such ecological importance to coastal ecosystems has changed so drastically in such a short period of time from human activities as dissolved oxygen.”
But when it comes to Oxygen, The Ocean is even more efficient than the forests, accounting for about 70% of annual production of free molecular Oxygen, the bulk of which is released into the atmosphere. Thus the increase of ‘dead zones’ with no oxygen, not only impacts fisheries and food, it also impacts the presence of phytoplankton responsible for the massive amount of Oxygen released into the global commons. As this is the process that provides 60-70 % of the annual input of free Oxygen required to maintain our global stock at equilibrium, any increase of oceanic dead zones will mean reduction of Oxygen production provided to the atmospheric. Currently, Oxygen concentration in the atmosphere is 1.2×1015 ton (12,000,000,000,000,000 t), with a Turnover rate about 4000 years, whereby Oxygen from photosynthesis by plants are constantly added to the atmosphere so that a mean of 21.9 % in the atmosphere is maintained.
In the current use of Oxygen, supply is taken for granted with no investment nor responsibility for its replacement. The combined effects of respiration, fossil fuel combustion, deforestation and loss of oceanic production, has begun to affect the Global Commons of our atmosphere and are creating increasing events of reduced air quality and low atmospheric oxygen concentration. Already that effect is being felt as increases in lung disease and difficulty in breathing in many cities. Bringing into stark focus, the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
So, while waiting for industry to become responsible and replace the atmospheric Oxygen that they consume, we should not be holding our breath. We should be working at initiatives that seek to build up the Photosynthetic Biomass stocks wherever possible. The most promising areas for development being the deforested and degraded lands. The most promising resource for implementation being the rural poor. Each tree estimated to produce over 150Kg of Oxygen per year. Each human being uses about 750 kg of Oxygen per year for breathing. Thus establishing 4-5 trees will compensate for the Oxygen we breathe from the Global Commons. But in the end, it is those who live in rural areas who will be able to help us by planting, looking after and protecting the trees we plant. It will be rural societies who can help us be responsible for the air we breathe. They could be empowered if those industrial users of atmospheric Oxygen like, chemical industries, internal combustion engines, jet engines and industrial use of atmospheric Oxygen that is being used furiously with not a penny paid to replace the Oxygen that our lungs require.
The magic engine of photosynthesis is being destroyed. The forests are disappearing for ‘fossil based development’ and the Oceans are dying due to ‘fossil based development’ as is the air, dying on the altar of ‘fossil based development’. This notion of ‘development’ has become an abused word used by political hacks to defend their greedy, self-centered actions. For how long can we allow them to destroy the very basis for life on their crooked altar?