Tyler Volk


On his book CO2 Rising: The World’s Greatest Environmental Challenge

Cover Interview of December 05, 2008

A close-up

Named after Charles David Keeling, a distinguished carbon-cycle scientist, the carbon atom Dave serves, I hope, as a literary device that aids in revealing the fascinating paths that actual carbon atoms take during their global circuits.  Through carbon atom Dave I present the carbon cycle from a carbon atom’s point of view.  Each chapter includes a vignette from the life of Dave.  These vignettes relate to the substantive technical content that follows.  In the first several chapters, for example, Dave’s presence in an alcohol molecule in a glass of beer illustrates how a loop in the global carbon cycle works.  His passage through a gas analyzer in the early 1960s leads to the topic of the discovery of the worldwide rise of CO2.  Dave’s transit from the atmosphere into the ocean shows that circuits extend from plants to soils to air to water and back.

rorotoko.com The carbon atom “Dave” (marked “D”) in a molecule of alcohol in a glass of beer. Also shown is a CO2 molecule in the bubbles near the top.

I was not able to introduce everything I wanted to by following a single atom of carbon.  Dave, for example, entered the biosphere naturally—from the dissolution of a crystal in a limestone cliff during the last Ice Age.  Some of the pathways in this book had to come from carbon atoms brought into the biosphere by the combustion of fossil fuels.  Thus, I bring in several other atoms: Coalleen, Oiliver, Methaniel.  By tracing the stories of these atoms, we appraise the magnitudes of various carbon fluxes to and from the atmosphere and the stability (or lack thereof) of the global carbon cycle in the past.

With the twin purposes of enhancing the enjoyment of our being alive as carbon-dependent organic beings and preparing the way for the later chapters, I planned the chapters in the first half of the book as relatively short primers on carbon fluxes that circulate among the great carbon-containing “bowls” of the biosphere.  In the later chapters, I unfold the issues that are so challenging with respect to the future.  These chapters, too, include episodes from the lives of my named carbon atoms—for instance, Oiliver and Methaniel are released from a burning stick used to cook a school lunch in Rwanda, and Dave passes through a wind turbine.  But the material in the later chapters is denser, and the tone more impending as we project CO2 emissions into the future.