The Spark of Life
Written by Klaus L E Kaiser PhD
The Spark of Life, depicted by the Italian master Michelangelo (1475-1564) in his famous fresco of God giving life to Adam in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, is a gift from God.
That gift includes the carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere and the natural process of converting it to living matter, plants and all other life on earth, a process termed “photosynthesis.” Photosynthesis is what converts atmospheric CO2 to carbonaceous materials, the principal components of all plants. In turn, with plants being the basic food for all higher life forms on earth, the latter also contain that element.
CO2—A Gift from God
Really, without that CO2 no life on earth would be possible, certainly not of the kind that’s here now. There is not a single organism whose body does not contain “carbon” in any of its millions of chemical forms. There is not a single one—period.
God’s gift of CO2 also entails the photosynthesis process that allows life forms to flourish all around. The plants need the CO2 to grow and to create fruits or seeds for propagation which the higher life forms live off by consuming such. In the process, over many millions of years, the earth’s atmosphere was endowed with molecular oxygen that’s required for us to breathe. That oxygen, chemically speaking, has been taken from the CO2. In simple terms, no CO2 in the air also means no oxygen in the air; there is no other source of atmospheric oxygen—period.
But that’s not all; the photosynthetic conversion of CO2 to plant matter has yet another consequence. Despite all claims to the contrary, CO2 is the ONE and ONLY reason for the oceans and most freshwater systems to be alkaline, also termed basic.
Acidic versus Basic
The pH is a measure of acidity. When below 7.0, the system is acidic, when above 7.0 it is alkaline. Every spring, at all latitudes, ocean and freshwater bodies have increasing pH (are becoming more alkaline) than they are in the depth of winter. This phenomenon is being observed all around the world like, for example, at the research station ALOHA, about one hundred miles offshore and north of Hawaii. It used to be ship-based but employs now various cable-connected buoys and radio-controlled submersible ocean gliders.
Though widely misunderstood, life is a constant interplay between acidic and basic conditions. For example, mammalian species’ propagation depends on that as well. For example, human sperm has a pH of around 8.0. In contrast, vaginal fluid is rather acidic with a pH of 4 or so. If nothing else, this example shows the interplay of acidic and basic environments in the world. Organisms in water, whether salty or fresh water, are no different in that regard; life depends on the right pH—everywhere.
However, there is one great proviso in all that: The ecosystem must continue to function like it has for millions of years. When the system gets severely disrupted by overharvesting, or use of habitat-destroying fishing methods, it will rapidly lead to disastrous long-term consequences. One example is the collapse of the cod fish stocks around the Grand Banks offshore Newfoundland. After tripling the annual catch of approximately 250,000 tons since the beginning of the 20th century to 750,000 tons – mostly by European fishing fleets – in the 1960s, the cod stocks declined sharply and had practically disappeared by 1992. Even now, after more than two decades of a fishing moratorium, the cod have yet to return to their former abundance.
Though the cod stocks around the Grand Banks are one clear example, many other fish stocks in other areas of the world have also been exploited beyond their capacity for a natural replenishment. There are various books describing that, like Norman Holy’s Deserted Ocean; (sc, ISBN-13: 978-1-4389-6494-2) and Gary Sharp and his coauthors’ Out of Fishermen’s Hands.
CO2—Vital for Photosynthesis
The afore-mentioned ALOHA station has been in operation for more than two decades now, in recent years mostly automated via a cabled buoy. As any graph showing the seasonal variations in water pH will demonstrate, the pH of the water increases each spring and summer, only to decrease again in the fall and winter. Both seasonal and multi-year variations of ocean chemistry are routinely measured at many research stations, including the large array of nearly 4,000 autonomous floats of the Argo network. In large freshwater systems, like the Laurentian Great Lakes, similar measurements are made on a regular basis.
The data from these measurements all show the same picture, namely a rise in pH (increase of alkaline property) once nature re-awakens after a seasonal slumber and the primary production (photosynthesis) gets going again. Really, it’s quite simple to explain that: the CO2 taken up by the water from the atmosphere, together with minerals dissolved in the water column and the seasonally increasing photosynthetic activity INCREASES the pH of the water.
Without any of these three key components, i.e. carbon dioxide, minerals, and sunshine—there would be no life on earth, neither on land nor in the water!
Be thankful for our good fortune of having the other gift from God—sufficient CO2 in the atmosphere—to sustain the Spark of Life!