The main points I am going to look at is how the ocean and plants affect the removal of carbon in our atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, and how the carbon is added back to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels....
People are usually surprised to hear that grass is a relatively recent plant innovation. and only became common in the late Cretaceous, along with flowering plants. With grass, some , and grazers have been plentiful Cenozoic herbivores. According to , carbon dioxide levels have been falling nearly continuously for the past 150-100 million years. Not only has that decline progressively cooled Earth to the point where we live in an ice age today, but is currently considered the key reason why complex life may become extinct on Earth in several hundred million years. In the Oligocene, between 32 mya and 25 mya some plants developed a during photosynthesis known as . It allowed plants to adapt to reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. C4 plants became in the Miocene, and grasses are today’s most common C4 plants and . The rest of Earth’s photosynthesizers use or , which is a water-conserving process used in arid biomes.
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Polar forests reappeared in the Eocene after the , and the Eocene’s was the Cenozoic’s warmest time and . Not only did alligators live near the North Pole, but the continents and oceans hosted an abundance and diversity of life that Earth may have not seen before or since. That ten million year period ended as Earth began cooling off and headed toward the current ice age, and it has been called the original Paradise Lost. One way that methane has been implicated in those hot times is that leaves have , which regulate the air they take in to obtain carbon dioxide and oxygen, needed for photosynthesis and respiration. Plants also lose water vapor through their stomata, so balancing gas input needs against water losses are key stomata functions, and it is thought that in periods of high carbon dioxide concentration, . Scientists can count stomata density in fossil leaves, which led some scientists to conclude that carbon dioxide levels were not high enough to produce the PETM, so that produced the PETM and , and the controversy and research continues.
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It can help to think of mitochondria as “distributed” energy generation centers in eukaryotes, versus the “perimeter” energy generation in prokaryotes. The new mode of energy production presented various challenges, but it allowed life to become large and complex. Size is important, at the cellular level as well as the organism level. Below is a diagram of a typical plant cell. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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Perhaps a few hundred million years after the first mitochondrion appeared, as the oceanic oxygen content, at least on the surface, increased as a result of oxygenic photosynthesis, those complex cells learned to use oxygen instead of hydrogen. It is difficult to overstate the importance of learning to use oxygen in respiration, called . Before the appearance of aerobic respiration, life generated energy via and . Because oxygen , aerobic respiration generates, on average, about per cycle as fermentation and anaerobic respiration do (although some types of anaerobic respiration can get ). The suite of complex life on Earth today would not have been possible without the energy provided by oxygenic respiration. At minimum, nothing could have flown, and any animal life that might have evolved would have never left the oceans because the atmosphere would not have been breathable. With the advent of aerobic respiration, became possible, as it is several times as efficient as anaerobic respiration and fermentation (about 40% as compared to less than 10%). Today’s food chains of several levels would be constrained to about two in the absence of oxygen. Some scientists have and oxygen and respiration in eukaryote evolution. is controversial.
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As oxygenic photosynthesis spread through the oceans, everything that could be oxidized by oxygen was, during what is called the (“GOE”), although there may have been multiple dramatic events. The event began as long as three bya and is . The ancient carbon cycle included volcanoes spewing a number of gases into the atmosphere, including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen, but carbon dioxide was particularly important. When the continents began forming, carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere via water capturing it, , the carbon became combined into calcium carbonate, and plate tectonics subducted the calcium carbonate in the ocean sediments into the crust, which was again released as carbon dioxide in volcanoes.