Humans burn plant matter for many reasons; clearing forests for agricultural land, slash-and-burn agriculture, ritual savannah burning, wildfires. Recent research by Professor Mark Jacobson at Standford University suggests that burning living matter may contribute far more to climate change than previously thought. This is because, unlike other types of emissions, burning plant matter releases carbon particles into the atmosphere which accelerate warming. These particles are also very damaging to human health, and are responsible for the deaths of 250,000 people every year.
Each year, humans pump nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are now certain that these emissions, along with other greenhouse gases, are altering our climate and warming the planet. One major source of carbon dioxide emissions is burning plant matter, either deliberately or because of wildfires. But the contribution of fires to climate change has not previously been quantified.
As we are very rapidly discovering, living creatures have the ability to drastically alter the climate and weather systems on Earth, and the greatest changes are achieved by the species that are greatest in number. Ants may be no exception to this rule, and recent geological research suggests that ants may be providing a vital counter-balance to our CO2 emitting ways. Ants may be cooling the climate as we warm it. But are ants the solution to climate change?
Ants and Climate Change
A recent study published in Geology has begun to reveal the role ants play in keeping Earth’s atmosphere cool. They might be small, but ants are ubiquitous on Earth, found on every continent except Antarctica and numbering over 15,000 species. They have the potential to have a big impact. The study published this month showed that ants collect minerals from their environment and change them into rock, inadvertently trapping carbon dioxide gas in the rock as they do so. This process is identical to the way in which atmospheric CO2 is sequestered by the oceans, and naturally weathered on land.
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