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To be sure we leave a healthy planet
for our children and their children,
we have to be thinking about
the effect of how we live today.

Carbon Footprints

470 words


How to better understand the threat to our planet
by Dianne Roth


Soon I am flying to North Carolina to spend Thanksgiving and birthdays with grandchildren. Except for being an unwilling flyer, I look forward to the trip.

I am unwilling, first because I have to spend so much energy shoring up my trust in airplanes and pilots, and second because of the pounds of carbon I will be responsible for releasing into our fragile atmosphere.

Although I know my fears are irrational, the carbon thing is something I struggle to personalize as a concrete concept.

Here is my thinking. If my behavior (flying, driving, heating my house, purchasing products from afar instead of locally, etc.) causes “x” number of pounds of carbon to pile up, where exactly are those pounds. Shouldn’t I be able to quantify, measure, or clean up the mess I make?

I have asked my question a dozen times. Friends, experts, and scientists all look blankly at my need to ‘see’ those millions of pounds of carbon.

Recently, while talking to Heather Throop, a biologist from New Mexico State University, I asked my question.

She started with water.

You take a pound of water and no matter what you do to that pound of water, it is still a pound of water. If you freeze it, you have a pound of water. If you turn it into a gas (steam) you still have a pound of water. If it is released into the atmosphere as a gas, even if all you can see is a mist, it is still a pound of water.

It is the same with carbon.

There are about five pounds of carbon per gallon of gasoline. When gasoline is burned, most of the exhaust is carbon dioxide (CO2), an invisible gas. There are still five pounds of carbon in that exhaust gas.

Unfortunately, though water in the form of a gas condenses back into water, carbon in the form of gas remains a gas in the atmosphere, warming the planet. There are no “pounds” we can actually see.

So, according to Heather, “It's a really interesting contrast that we can't see this carbon, yet the numbers are huge. Carbon emissions from transportation in the US alone are over 1 trillion pounds annually. The weight of that carbon is equivalent to one million fully loaded Boeing 747-800 airplanes, enough planes to stretch nose-to-tail 17 times across the US.”

She made a quick estimate of 3000 pounds of CO2 for my round trip flight. That would be roughly 825 pounds of carbon or the equivalent amount of carbon in an 11 inch diameter Douglas fir tree, including needles and roots. That estimate is per person on my flights.

Yikes! I hope I have collected enough carbon credits through recycling, reusing, gardening, composting, walking, and conserving resources to balance out my footprint and enough good karma to get me home safely.


Dianne Roth is a teacher, mother, grandmother, and freelance writer. She lives in Oregon.




Last updated on September 16, 2013