I recently stumbled across a fascinating essay on the Environmental Defense Fund website. It asks and visually answers a great question. How big is a ton of CO2? Carbon dioxide.
Here’s my summary of their visualization:
Picture a balloon 10 feet in diameter.
It holds 1 ton of Carbon Dioxide. CO2. 1 part Carbon and 2 parts Oxygen. A colorless gas.
Symbols C and O and Atomic Numbers 6 and 8 on the Periodic Table that hung on the front wall in my high school chemistry classroom.
6 and 8 being the number of protons roaming around in the nucleus of every atom of Carbon and Oxygen on earth.
Now picture a football field – 300 feet long by roughly 160 feet wide.
You could squeeze 480 carbon-filled balloons 10 feet in diameter onto this field.
So 480 tons of CO2 gas pumped into 480 balloons.
These are our balloons so let’s make them bright red and let’s have them bobbing gently in a warm afternoon breeze.
Actually, I’m not sure how much bobbing our balloons are doing because CO2 gas is 53 percent more dense than dry air. But never mind.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, every American family released 24 CO2-filled balloons into the atmosphere in 2006: home heating, electricity and transportation.
But that’s just households. Add in industries and the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that we Americans sent 5.1 billion metric tons skyward in 2019.
That’s 5.1 billion balloons. We will need 10,625,000 football fields for our balloons.
In round numbers, a football field covers one acre. More like 1.1 – but let’s keep this simple.
Our 10,625,000 football fields span 10,625,000 acres.
Now let’s move our balloons into the West’s national forests. They span 193 million acres.
Divide 10,625,000 by 193 million and you will find that our carbon-carrying balloons will fill about 5.5 percent of our national forest land base.
Now let’s take those bright red balloons off the football field and fill it with the dead and dying trees that are fueling the West’s wildfire pandemic.
This will give us a new way to visualize the alarming increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions.
Wood is commonly measured in cubic feet, so we need to turn our balloons into 1’X1’X1’ wooden cubes.
Now let’s try something interesting using Forest Service data for annual growth, mortality and harvest on a western national forest.
Since we live in Idaho, let’s make it our example.
By volume, Idaho’s national forests grow 696 million cubic feet of new wood annually.
Of this amount, 555 million cubic feet die from insects and diseases.
80 percent of new annual growth. 555 million 1’X1’X1’ cubes.
If you stacked all those cubes on a football field, the stack would be 1.8 miles tall.
So we have a solid block of wood 300 feet long, 160 feet wide and 9,504 feet tall.
That’s this year’s growth. Next year, our stack will be 19,008 feet tall. That’s a lot of firewood.
You can read our data-rich Idaho report here.
You can do this same exercise for every national forest in the Interior West because mortality exceeds growth in every one of them. Here’s a list of all national forests in the U.S.
Let’s visit Wikipedia…
You are looking for national forests in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington and Oregon east of the Cascade Range.
Dead and dying trees in these national forests are fueling our western wildfire pandemic.
The Biden Administration’s climate initiative speaks to the balloons crowding those 10,625,000 football fields but it doesn’t address the trillions of cubic feet of dead and dying trees crowding national forests in the Interior West – or the billions of tons of carcinogenic smoke that western wildfires belch into the air we breathe year after year after year.
Among the nastier gases in wildfire smoke: Carbon monoxide, methane, sulfur dioxide and benzene. Also abrasive ash particles 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. You can’t see them. And let’s not forget those 480 red balloons bobbing around on our 1-acre football field. Multiple 480 by the 10 million acres that burned in the West in 2020. It’s 4.8 billion. Balloons or tons. It’s all smoke packed in imaginative balloons.
The billions of tons of wildfire smoke that westerners are forced to breathe annually comes with an added “bonus.” It’s carcinogenic. Which begs a question that I asked in Chapter 23 of my book, First, Put Out the Fire! here. How many cigarettes are there in a burning tree?
Time’s a wastin’
It will be years before the measurable results of the President’s climate change initiatives are known. Meantime, lots of bright red balloons floating around. But the dead and dying trees that are choking the life out of western national forests – balloons of another kind – can be deflated much faster.
Simply remove as many of these trees as possible as quickly as possible. The result will be immediate and long lasting improvements in air and water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.
The politically cynical claim that we must “return fire to fire-depleted ecosystems” ignore the deadly realities associated with our wildfire pandemic. Millions of homes and lives are in harm’s way. Thinning trees from dying national forests and prescribed burning when and where the risks are low is the only safe and sane solution.
Congress needs to fix this. Now.