Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is the release of oil a good thing?

  1. Dec 3, 2016 #1
    Life on earth started approximately 3.5 billion years ago. On earth's surface there was a finite quantity of carbon, among other finite building blocks of life. Organisms absorb this carbon, then they die. After death the organisms carbon (and other life essential ingredients) are released and used again by the next organism that requires it. Thus there is a cycle.
    I have released that over time, many organisms have been lost before their matter can be recycled. They become oil.
    Now supposing humans never existed, this carbon would be removed from the surface of earth throughout the course of time. If the carbon is being removed fast enough then there may come a time when there is not enough carbon left to sustain life.
    So, while sudden changes may upset the system. In the long run (say, a billion years) Would the release of carbon not secure the future prosperity of biological life?

    I'm having a real hard time with this idea because I really do respect the planet I live on and the notion of us causing irreversible damage to it is heartbreaking. I hate deforestation, war, everything that involves putting humans far above the rest of life. Yet I cannot get my head past the idea that releasing oil is a good thing (on a geological time scale).
    The last thing I'd want is give the go ahead to the oil industry.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 3, 2016 #2


    User Avatar
    2017 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    Over geological timescales, our actions today are irrelevant. There is much more carbon stored in rocks, and this carbon is part of the cycle as well - geological processes release it and capture it again. The oil (and coal) we don't bring to the surface will naturally appear there at some point, or get into the mantle and contribute to raw material for new mantle rocks, eventually reaching the surface again.

    Our increased CO2 concentration means more carbon than before is absorbed by geological processes. Over thousands of years, the carbon we bring to the surface today will be underground again.
    The longest-lasting effect of our current actions is probably the number of species that go extinct - but even that won't be notable a few million years from now. No, we do not cause irreversible damage. Just a lot of short-term damage and some damage that lasts a bit longer.

    In a few hundred million years, the increasing power of the sun will lead to geological processes removing more and more CO2 from the atmosphere - up to the point where complex plant life won't survive. This happens completely independent of the amount of oil and coal we burn today.
  4. Dec 4, 2016 #3
    Unless "geologic timescales" is defined, relevance of our actions is moot. While it doesn't seem to have happened by the 2016 target, the Anthropocene Epoch will probably be accepted as a unit of the geologic timescale. The time frame of human evolution is even longer than that. In either time frame, geologic processes have been ongoing that have relevance.

    The OP's concerns about the billion-year effects of our actions are probably irrelevant. Current models suggest that the dooming of plant life because of the loss of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is more like in terms of a Giga-year away. At the same time, stewardship of the earth in the present and our future is not a philosophical construct that should be poo-poo'd in PF. The (un-necessary) extinction of species might well be noticed a million years from now. We don't know enough to make that judgement.
  5. Dec 4, 2016 #4


    User Avatar
    2017 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    Wikipedia has an article with more details and references. Short summary: Most of the excess carbon in the atmosphere will be absorbed in the oceans and bound as calcium carbonate on land over hundreds of years. The rest will slowly be consumed in breaking down rocks over tens of thousands of years.
  6. Dec 4, 2016 #5
    Swansong Biospheres II: The final signs of life on terrestrial planets near the end of their habitable lifetimes
    Jack T. O'Malley-James, Charles S. Cockell, Jane S. Greaves, John. A. Raven

    Swansong biospheres: refuges for life and novel microbial biospheres on terrestrial planets near the end of their habitable lifetimes

    Jack T. O'Malley-James, Jane S. Greaves , John A. Raven and Charles S. Cockell

    both are also in arXiv now, I think.

    This is a good paper on the geodynamics/tectonics that would accompany the decline of the biosphere, even if it's a bit dated.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted