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Poisoned Air

Can We Survive Without Oxygen?

By James Donahue

While global warming alarmists have been centering the world’s attention on rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane gas and its impact on our smog-filled cities and changing climate, little has been said about the other problem we are facing . . . a declining oxygen supply.

This problem has only recently been brought to light because of new technology, developed in the 1980s, that allows researchers to measure minute variations in atmospheric oxygen. Dr. Ralph Keeling used this technology to measure the level of atmospheric oxygen from 1990 to 2008 at stations located in Antarctica, La Jolla, California and Cape Grim, Tasmania. He discovered a 0.0317 percent decline in the world's oxygen during this period.

That might not sound like much of a loss but consider this: Keeling’s research reveals that fossil fuel combustion appears to be strongly linked to the loss of the world’s oxygen. And we have been burning fossil fuels since the day humans discovered fire. And the amount of fossil fuel combustion has been increasing exponentially as the world’s population has grown and since we entered the industrial age over 200 years ago.

A report by Karen Villarante for Climate Emergency Institute notes that Keeling found that the very act of burning fossil fuels is also destroying oxygen. He estimates that about three oxygen molecules are lost every time a single carbon dioxide molecule is produced by fossil fuel combustion.

Villarante wrote that the burning of fossil fuels may also be affecting oxygen-producing organisms like phytoplankton in our oceans.

This is happening in two ways, Villarante wrote. She said the oceans act as a carbon sink, absorbing nearly half of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The mixture causes the ocean waters to become acidic, which tends to kill phytoplankton. Also working as a greenhouse gas, the carbon dioxide is causing a warming of the planet, plus the oceans. She calculates that the warming of the oceans alone has caused up to a 40 percent drop in the phytoplankton population since 1950.

The other major factor in this loss in oxygen has been the massive deforestation of the planet. Trees are a compliment to all oxygen-breathing animal life on Earth. With every breath we take oxygen into our lungs and then exhale carbon dioxide as a byproduct of respiration. The trees in turn absorb the carbon dioxide and use photosynthesis to produce oxygen.

There was a major alarm about oxygen decline sounded in 2008 after Peter Tatchell published a story in The Guardian that suggested the world's oxygen supply has dropped from prehistoric levels of 30 to 35 percent to a current level of 21 percent. He warned that oxygen levels in the cities may be even lower.

The Tatchell story fell under severe criticism by Australian meteorologist Anthony Watts who argued that world oxygen levels have remained constant at 20.95 percent for the last century and that any higher levels reaching 30 percent or more would probably be harmful to our health.

Watts wrote that "the Earth's forests do not play a dominant role in maintaining O2 reserves because they consume just as much of this gas as they produce. Simply put, our atmosphere is endowed with such an enormous reserve of this gas that even if we were to burn all our fossil fuel reserves, all our trees, and all the organic matter stored in soils, we would use up only a few percent of the available O2."

While Tatchell admitted in his story that he was not a scientist, and he drew data from at least one questionable source, a variety of other researchers like that late Lloyd Berkner have produced concerns about world oxygen levels that should perhaps be taken more seriously than Watts has been willing to offer.

On his blog page, Mervyn K. Vogt quotes from Berkner, a former NASA researcher and expert on world oxygen levels, that he was severely concerned about the massive oil spills in world ocean waters and their effect on diatoms, microscopic plants that produce much of the world's supply of oxygen. Berkner pointed to such disasters as the sinking of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon on the North Sea and the grounding of the Exon Valdeez on the Alaskan coast. Since then other oil spills, including the British Petroleum disaster on the Gulf of Mexico have added to the problem.

Vogt wrote that it was Berkner's fear that "it would only take a relatively small number of such disasters in the wrong places, at the wrong times, to trigger a sudden and irreversible drop in the world's oxygen levels. Such an event could occur very rapidly."

Tatchell's claim: "In the Twentieth Century humanity has pumped increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning the carbon stored in coal, petroleum and natural gas. In the process, we’ve also been consuming oxygen and destroying plant life – cutting down forests at an alarming rate and thereby short-circuiting the cycle’s natural rebound. We’re artificially slowing down one process and speeding up another, forcing a change in the atmosphere."

A team of British and US scientists recently found that by studying the amount of charcoal in coal, they could determine how much oxygen existed in the atmosphere in the ancient past. While the current atmosphere contains 21 percent oxygen, they have determined that Tatchell was correct, the air in prehistoric times measured as much as 30 percent or higher.

The extra oxygen in the atmosphere promoted extra hot fires that created the charcoal, which became part of the coal. Dr. Ian Glasspool of Chicago's Field Museum noted: "At levels below 15 percent wildfires could not have spread. However at levels significantly above 25 percent even wet plants could have burned. While at levels around 30 percent to 35 percent, as have been proposed for the Late Paleozioc, wildfires would have been frequent and catastrophic."

Some researchers suggest that the extra oxygen might have accounted for the massive size of the animals that existed on earth during that period.

Now researchers fear the depletion of oxygen may be having an impact on our brains. Tatchell wrote: "The effects of long term oxygen deprivation on the brain, called cerebral hypoxia, are known and some sound reminiscent of the general rise of stupidity in the industrialized world."

Is it all a hoax or have we reached a level of stupidity that we are no longer capable of recognizing our dilemma and collectively doing anything to save ourselves?