Another Deep Breath
Once you find a good topic its hard to let it go, so again I will stay on the topic of Oxygen. Its hard to say too much about a good thing and definitely Oxygen falls into that category. Oxygen is a good thing if you are have an aerobic metabolism. If you are an anaerobe, a creature that has a metabolism doesn’t use oxygen and that produces oxygen as a waste, chances are that it not so good.
So the benefits of oxygen are a matter of perspective. Here is some of the raw chemistry. Oxygen is the second most reactive element on the periodic table. That means it is always on the hunt to bond with something. That is what makes it so important for you and me. It is more reactive than chlorine and almost as reactive as fluorine, both incredibly toxic and dangerous. In fact, if it wasn’t so necessary for metabolism and life, oxygen would be extremely dangerous. And its why the anaerobes did themselves in a billion years ago and lost control over the ecosystem that they had created. It was extremely toxic to them. In fact oxidation is also something that can be detrimental to the aerobic creatures as well. It ages us, creates mutations and invades our DNA and RNA and degrades our organs. Yet its impossible to do without it. Its absolutely necessary for almost all life and at the same time is responsible for our death. Talk about a two edged sword. You can’t do without and if you live with it, it will kill you.
We get a huge amount of energy from combining things with all the surplus oxygen that we have in the atmosphere created by our busy plants and microbes. When we eat we use oxygen and its incredibly voracious appetite to bond with our food that releases energy. Its called oxidation. When we burn wood, coal, natural gas and oil we oxidize carbon. When we drive our cars and our trucks, when we fly, when we breathe and when we die and rot, we consume oxygen. Its everywhere from the macroscopic to the microscopic. We are saturated in Oxygen.
With all this oxidation going on and understanding that oxygen is so highly reactive, you’d think that we would run out of the stuff in short order. In fact we would if it weren’t for the plants and microbes that are busy making the stuff as quickly as we use it.
If they stopped for some reason. If they died off or they just quit making oxygen we would use it all up in less than a century and everything would stop.
The punch line to this oxygen story is this. When we delve into the distant past we find that the levels of oxygen have varied dramatically. There were times in the past where oxygen has been as high as 40 to 45%. Life in those times was lush and varied and spectacular. There are also times when the level have plummeted below 20%, lower than they are today. That happened during the great dying when massive volcanism ignited the huge forests that spewed fires and carbon dioxide almost without end, while consuming oxygen. The Earth heated up the oceans released hydrogen cyanide and life almost died out.
Could it happen again? Its worth considering. Breathe deeply folks.
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