National Geographic’s ‘The Case of the Missing Carbon’

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Alone in a sealed jar, a mouse would die from exhaled CO2. But as scientist Joseph Priestley observed in 1771, adding a mint plant allows the mouse to thrive. In this proof of photosynthesis, the mint absorbed CO2, retained carbon for growth, and released oxygen.

Two centuries later humans tried—and failed—to survive in a sealed environment in Arizona’s Biosphere 2.

It’s there on a monitor: the forest is breathing. Late summer sunlight filters through a canopy of green as Steven Wofsy unlocks a shed in a Massachusetts woodland and enters a room stuffed with equipment and tangled with wires and hoses.

The machinery monitors the vital functions of a small section of Harvard Forest in the center of the state. Bright red numbers dance on a gauge, flickering up and down several times a second. The reading reveals the carbon dioxide concentration just above the treetops near the shed, where instruments on a hundred-foot (30-meter) tower of steel lattice sniff the air. The numbers are running surprisingly low for the beginning of the 21st century: around 360 parts per million, ten less than the global average. That’s the trees’ doing. Basking in the sunshine, they inhale carbon dioxide and turn it into leaves and wood.

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