How Long Does Carbon Dioxide Stay in the Atmosphere

Many scientists around the world have been studying and wondering how long does carbon dioxide stay in the atmosphere. There are researches which indicated conflicting results. However, even if many of them blame carbon dioxide emissions for the further development of climate change, scientists know that nitrous oxide is more dangerous. It is the most potent greenhouse gas, being 200-300 times stronger concerning the Earth-warming process.

On the other hand, the impact of methane gas on our planet’s climate is 25 times greater compared to the effects of carbon dioxide. Researchers indicate that Earth’s temperature relies on the balance between the energy offered by the sun and the energy which bounces back, getting lost in outer space.

Carbon dioxide represents a massive threat because it absorbs the heat that would otherwise be lost. Furthermore, it re-emits the energy that needs to be released back to Earth, heating up the entire planet. Researchers indicate that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a longer time period than other greenhouse gases. However, they find it hard to determine CO2’s lifetime.

Carbon dioxide is more dangerous than other greenhouse gases

They estimated that the carbon dioxide emissions might take between 20 to 200 years to dissipate into the ocean. Ocean acidification reduces the water’s ability to absorb more gas. Furthermore, the excessive carbon dioxide emissions threaten the marine food chain, damaging natural ecosystems.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that carbon dioxide is responsible for more than three-quarters of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This accumulation of gases is due to burning fossil fuels used in transport fuel or electricity. When fossil fuel comes in contact with oxygen, it produces CO2.

However, different fossil fuels trigger specific amounts of CO2. Coal produces the most carbon dioxide, being followed by oil and then by gas. Researchers indicate that the current carbon dioxide levels reached 40 billion tons. This amount is due to the unstoppable loss of forests, consumer demand and the surge in worldwide manufacturing.

This massive quantity of carbon dioxide is equivalent to flying from Sydney to London about 20 billion times. However, to try and prevent global average temperatures from rising by two degrees by the end of this century, global emissions need to diminish below 22 billion tons. If we would diminish the rate at which gas, oil, and coal burning, then the threatening levels of carbon dioxide will decrease.

CO2 can remain the atmosphere a few hundred years

Nevertheless, specialists indicate that it is all about global averages. For instance, in the West, people have a higher personal carbon imprint compared to people in the developing world. This happens because they tend to travel and consume much less. In Kenya, the annual carbon imprint per person is 0.3% while in the U.S. it is 17.5%. This accounts for more than 16% of the total CO2 emissions in the world.

Therefore, scientists predicted that each person needs to keep their carbon footprint lower than 2 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Currently, the global average is 4.6 tons per person. We will witness the serious reduction of CO2 when there occur serious changes within the big energy markets in the world.

Aside from carbon dioxide, there are other greenhouse gases like the halocarbons, nitrous oxide, methane, and water vapor. These gases may remain in the atmosphere for different amounts of time, affecting the planet’s climate on different timescales. Carbon dioxide is the most significant human-made greenhouse gas, and its amount in the atmosphere is very difficult to determine.

Some tree trunks on the ground that used to be part of a forest

Cutting down trees will determine an even higher increase in the levels of CO2.

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The ocean engulfs most of the amount of CO2 in the air

Somewhere between 65% and 80% of carbon dioxide that remains into the air is prone to dissolve into the ocean. The rest of it vanishes through slower processes that can last for several hundreds of years. Once the CO2 gets into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide may keep on affecting climate for thousands of years afterwards.

By comparison, methane dissipates into the atmosphere through a chemical reaction. Therefore, it only persists for about 12 years. Even it is a very potent greenhouse gas, its effect is short-lived. However, nitrous oxide remains in the atmosphere for about 114 years, being ultimately destroyed in the stratosphere.

Other compounds which contain fluorine and chlorine feature a high number of different chemical species. Each of these chemicals can last in the atmosphere for particular time lengths, from less than a year to thousands of years. Researchers indicate that water vapor represents an effective heat energy absorber in the air. Nevertheless, this does not accumulate in the atmosphere just like any other greenhouse gas.

Other greenhouse gases are methane, water vapor and nitrous oxide

Water vapor has a short atmospheric lifetime since it rapidly transforms into snow or rain in a matter of hours or days. However, as raising temperatures continue to grow, the atmosphere will retain a greater amount of water vapor. Therefore, researchers indicate that the greenhouse properties of water vapor represent a feedback loop rather than a direct effect of climate change.

There are many studies which indicate that individual carbon dioxide molecules remain in the atmosphere for about five years. Nevertheless, they tend to swap places with the CO2 in the ocean after they leave the atmosphere. Therefore, the final amount of CO2 can linger in the atmosphere for several centuries. Specialists indicate that all of this extra carbon needs to go somewhere.

Studies have shown that the ocean and land plants have absorbed about 55% of the extra carbon from the atmosphere. However, 45% of CO2 still lingers in the atmosphere, making the climate change effects feel even more dramatic. We all know that excess CO2 in the atmosphere may contribute to more severe climate change consequences. At the same time, the water in the ocean will be more acidic, jeopardizing marine life.

Summing up

Without greenhouse gases, Earth would be a frozen planet, having a temperature of about -18 degrees Celsius. However, excessive greenhouse gases would determine Earth to be like Venus where temperatures can reach more than 400 degrees Celsius. Carbon dioxide emissions in great quantities can severely affect the planet since they may remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

Image Source: Phys

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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