Burning Fossil Fuels

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century, fossil fuels have been burnt to provide power and energy. Burning fossil fuels has contributed to imbalances in the carbon cycle, impacting the climate, ecosystem and hydrological cycle. 

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    Impact of burning fossil fuels on the balance of the carbon cycle

    Carbon reservoirs can be both a source (adding carbon to the atmosphere) and sink (removing carbon from the atmosphere). When the sources and sinks are balanced, the carbon cycle is in equilibrium. Human activities such as burning fossil fuels have increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) without any increase in carbon sinks. This has been linked to the rise in global temperatures due to CO2 enhancing the Greenhouse Effect. Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by 48% since the Industrial Revolution.¹

    Impact on climate and weather of burning fossil fuels

    Due to the rising global temperature, the annual average land temperatures are projected to increase by more than the global average. It is predicted that:

    – Northern and Eastern Europe will have warmer winters whilst Southern Europe will have warmer summers.– Northern Europe will have more precipitation, and Southern Europe less precipitation.Burning Fossil Fuels Climate projections for Europe StudySmarterProjected annual mean temperature and annual precipitation. Image: EEA CC BY 2.5 DK

    Impact on the Arctic of burning fossil fuels

    The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the Earth, referred to as Arctic amplification. As permafrost starts to thaw, it releases CO2 and methane (CH4), increasing the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. This leads to further global warming causing ice and snow cover to melt, reducing the albedo effect, and leading to a positive feedback loop.

    This climate change has also started to change the Arctic tundra ecosystem. The warming has begun to melt the sea ice in the summer months and greatly reduce snow cover and permafrost. Some shrubs and trees that could not survive previous conditions have started to establish themselves. It has also begun to affect the habitat of local wildlife, such as the red fox migrating northwards, which means it has to compete with the Arctic fox for food and territory.

    Burning fossil fuels and the hydrological cycle

    Due to increased temperatures and evaporation rates, there will be more moisture in the atmosphere, impacting the hydrological cycle. Glacial melt and precipitation rates are affected, which changes river discharge, leading to an increased risk of flooding in the winter and drought in the summer. When glaciers melt quicker than they form, it is referred to as retreating. During the summer, much of Europe's water comes from Alpine glaciers. Climate scientists predict that by 2100 the Eastern Alps will be completely ice-free, and a large part of the Western Alps would be without ice. The following effects of the hydrological cycle are expected:

    • Snow as precipitation will cease and affect the rainfall pattern.
    • River discharging patterns will change, creating greater flooding possibilities in the winter and drought in the summer.
    • The flow of water from the melting Alpine glaciers will increase sediment yield. This could cause discharge and sediment yields to fall once the glaciers retreat and water quality declines.

    Burning Fossil Fuels - Key takeaways

    • From the industrial revolution, the rise of the amount of fossil fuels burnt has caused imbalances in the carbon cycle, impacting the climate, ecosystem, and hydrological cycle.

    • The carbon cycle balance maintains equilibrium from the balance of the reservoirs being a source and sink. The burning of fossil fuels has changed this balance leading to increased carbon in the atmosphere.

    • Northern and Eastern Europe are projected to have warmer winters whilst Southern Europe will have warmer summers. It is also predicted that Northern Europe will have more precipitation and Southern Europe less. There will be an increase in extreme weather.

    • The Arctic is warming at twice the rate, referred to as Arctic amplification. This will also affect the Arctic tundra ecosystem.

    • Glacial retreat will affect the hydrological cycle, leading to changes in rainfall, river discharge patterns and sediment yields.


    1. https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Burning Fossil Fuels

    What are the advantages of burning fossil fuels?

    Some people believe that burning fossil fuels has an economic advantage, with relatively low costs compared to renewable options.

    How does burning fossil fuels affect the environment?

    Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases which affect the climate of the Earth, leading to global warming.

    Why is burning fossil fuels so bad?

    Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment and human health. It increases the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and also lowers air quality.

    What are three examples of burning of fossil fuels?

    Coal, natural gas, oil.

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