Climate change could get much worse much faster if these 'natural sponges' fail. And it looks like they're failing.

Coal-fired power plant near water.
(Image credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Climate scientists are uncertain if the world's "natural sponges," which for decades have helped absorb global carbon dioxide emissions, will be able to keep up with the amount of emissions being produced from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, The New York Times reports. In fact, the sponges might already be failing: Even as the amount of carbon dioxide being produced has stabilized in recent years, carbon dioxide levels in the air rose at record rates in 2015 and 2016.

That's where concerns about the "natural sponges," like the land surface and the ocean, come into play. "In essence, these natural sponges were doing humanity a huge service by disposing of much of its gaseous waste," the Times writes. "But as emissions have risen higher and higher, it has been unclear how much longer the natural sponges will be able to keep up." In other words, even if "emissions were to stay flat for the next two decades, which could be called an achievement in some sense, it's terrible for the climate problem," said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pieter Tans.

Should [the natural sponges] weaken, the result would be something akin to garbage workers going on strike, but on a grand scale: The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would rise faster, speeding global warming even beyond its present rate. It is already fast enough to destabilize the weather, cause the seas to rise and threaten the polar ice sheets. [The New York Times]

More research still needs to be done to confirm scientists' worst fears. But "I'd estimate that we are about at the emissions peak," said Chinese Academy of Sciences professor Wang Yi. "Or if there are further rises, they won't be much." Read more about the problem at The New York Times.

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