Heidelberg University

Atmospheric oxygen: useful for more than just breathing

Penelope Pickers, University of East Anglia and Heidelberg University


Many people today are aware that carbon dioxide (CO2) is increasing in the atmosphere, and that human emissions of this greenhouse gas have by far the greatest impact on current climate change. What not so many people know, is that oxygen (O2) is rapidly decreasing in the atmosphere. Surely this is a major cause for concern, given the importance of this gas for human, animal and plant physiology? Is the world doomed? And how long do we have until humanity's last gasp?

In this course, we will discover what links atmospheric O2 and CO2 in the context of the carbon cycle and climate change. Our journey will begin with an overview of the physical science basis of climate change and the policy relevance of measuring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We will learn about the role of the carbon cycle in climate change - from the land to the ocean, and from the distant past to the imminent future. Along the way we will find out why the greenhouse effect is actually a good thing, how "not" to park your vehicle at a remote field station, why atmospheric O2 is 160 times harder to measure than atmospheric CO2, what on earth Gollum has got to do with it all, and why the world is not doomed... probably.