The Full Wiki

Carbon cycle: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Diagram of the carbon cycle. The black numbers indicate how much carbon is stored in various reservoirs, in billions of tons ("GtC" stands for GigaTons of Carbon and figures are circa 2004). The dark blue numbers indicate how much carbon moves between reservoirs each year. The sediments, as defined in this diagram, do not include the ~70 million GtC of carbonate rock and kerogen.

The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere of the Earth. It is one of the most important cycles of the earth and allows for the most abundant element to be recycled and reused throughout the biosphere and all of its organisms.

The carbon cycle is usually thought of as five[citation needed] major reservoirs of carbon interconnected by pathways of exchange. These reservoirs are:

  • The atmosphere
  • The terrestrial biosphere, which is usually defined to include fresh water systems and non-living organic material, such as soil carbon.
  • The oceans, including dissolved inorganic carbon and living and non-living marine biota,
  • The sediments including fossil fuels.
  • The earth's interior, carbon from the earth's mantle and crust is released to the atmosphere and hydrosphere by volcanoes and geothermal systems.

The annual movements of carbon, the carbon exchanges between reservoirs, occur because of various chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes. The ocean contains the largest active pool of carbon near the surface of the Earth, but the deep ocean part of this pool does not rapidly exchange with the atmosphere.

The global carbon budget is the balance of the exchanges (incomes and losses) of carbon between the carbon reservoirs or between one specific loop (e.g., atmosphere ↔ biosphere) of the carbon cycle. An examination of the carbon budget of a pool or reservoir can provide information about whether the pool or reservoir is functioning as a source or sink for carbon dioxide.


In the atmosphere

2008 Carbon dioxide concentration in the troposphere.

Carbon exists in the Earth's atmosphere primarily as the gas carbon dioxide (CO2). Although it is a small percentage of the atmosphere (approximately 0.04% on a molar basis), it plays a vital role in supporting life. Other gases containing carbon in the atmosphere are methane and chlorofluorocarbons (the latter is entirely anthropogenic). Trees convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates during photosynthesis, releasing oxygen in the process. This process is most prolific in relatively new forests where tree growth is still rapid. The effect is strongest in deciduous forests during spring leafing out. This is visible as an annual signal in the Keeling curve of measured CO2 concentration. Northern hemisphere spring predominates, as there is far more land in temperate latitudes in that hemisphere than in the southern.

  • Forests store 86% of the planet's above-ground carbon and 73% of the planet's soil carbon.[1]
  • At the surface of the oceans towards the poles, seawater becomes cooler and more carbonic acid is formed as CO2 becomes more soluble. This is coupled to the ocean's thermohaline circulation which transports dense surface water into the ocean's interior (see the entry on the solubility pump).
  • In upper ocean areas of high biological productivity, organisms convert reduced carbon to tissues, or carbonates to hard body parts such as shells and tests. These are, respectively, oxidized (soft-tissue pump) and redissolved (carbonate pump) at lower average levels of the ocean than those at which they formed, resulting in a downward flow of carbon (see entry on the biological pump).
  • The weathering of silicate rock (see Carbonate-Silicate Cycle). Carbonic acid reacts with weathered rock to produce bicarbonate ions. The bicarbonate ions produced are carried to the ocean, where they are used to make marine carbonates. Unlike dissolved CO2 in equilibrium or tissues which decay, weathering does not move the carbon into a reservoir from which it can readily return to the atmosphere.
  • In 1958, atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa was about 320 parts per million (ppm), and in 2010 it is about 385ppm[2].
  • Future CO2 emission can be calculated by the kaya identity

Carbon is released into the atmosphere in several ways:

  • Through the respiration performed by plants and animals. This is an exothermic reaction and it involves the breaking down of glucose (or other organic molecules) into carbon dioxide and water.
  • Through the decay of animal and plant matter. Fungi and bacteria break down the carbon compounds in dead animals and plants and convert the carbon to carbon dioxide if oxygen is present, or methane if not.
  • Through combustion of organic material which oxidizes the carbon it contains, producing carbon dioxide (and other things, like water vapor). Burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum products, and natural gas releases carbon that has been stored in the geosphere for millions of years. Burning agrofuels also releases carbon dioxide which has been stored for only a few years or less.
  • Production of cement. Carbon dioxide is released when limestone (calcium carbonate) is heated to produce lime (calcium oxide), a component of cement.
  • At the surface of the oceans where the water becomes warmer, dissolved carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere.
  • Volcanic eruptions and metamorphism release gases into the atmosphere. Volcanic gases are primarily water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. The carbon dioxide released is roughly equal to the amount removed by silicate weathering [citation needed]; so the two processes, which are the chemical reverse of each other, sum to roughly zero, and do not affect the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide on time scales of less than about 100,000 years.

In the biosphere

Around 42,000 gigatonnes of carbon are present in the biosphere. Carbon is an essential part of life on Earth. It plays an important role in the structure, biochemistry, and nutrition of all living cells.

  • Autotrophs are organisms that produce their own organic compounds using carbon dioxide from the air or water in which they live. To do this they require an external source of energy. Almost all autotrophs use solar radiation to provide this, and their production process is called photosynthesis. A small number of autotrophs exploit chemical energy sources in a process called chemosynthesis. The most important autotrophs for the carbon cycle are trees in forests on land and phytoplankton in the Earth's oceans. Photosynthesis follows the reaction 6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2
  • Carbon is transferred within the biosphere as heterotrophs feed on other organisms or their parts (e.g., fruits). This includes the uptake of dead organic material (detritus) by fungi and bacteria for fermentation or decay.
  • Most carbon leaves the biosphere through respiration. When oxygen is present, aerobic respiration occurs, which releases carbon dioxide into the surrounding air or water, following the reaction C6H12O6 + 6O2 → 6CO2 + 6H2O. Otherwise, anaerobic respiration occurs and releases methane into the surrounding environment, which eventually makes its way into the atmosphere or hydrosphere (e.g., as marsh gas or flatulence).
  • Burning of biomass (e.g. forest fires, wood used for heating, anything else organic) can also transfer substantial amounts of carbon to the atmosphere
  • Carbon may also be circulated within the biosphere when dead organic matter (such as peat) becomes incorporated in the geosphere. Animal shells of calcium carbonate, in particular, may eventually become limestone through the process of sedimentation.
  • Much remains to be learned about the cycling of carbon in the deep ocean. For example, a recent discovery is that larvacean mucus houses (commonly known as "sinkers") are created in such large numbers that they can deliver as much carbon to the deep ocean as has been previously detected by sediment traps.[3] Because of their size and composition, these houses are rarely collected in such traps, so most biogeochemical analyses have erroneously ignored them.

Carbon storage in the biosphere is influenced by a number of processes on different time-scales: while net primary productivity follows a diurnal and seasonal cycle, carbon can be stored up to several hundreds of years in trees and up to thousands of years in soils. Changes in those long term carbon pools (e.g. through de- or afforestation or through temperature-related changes in soil respiration) may thus affect global climate change.

In the ocean

"Present day" (1990s) sea surface dissolved inorganic carbon concentration (from the GLODAP climatology)

The oceans contain around 36,000 gigatonnes of carbon, mostly in the form of bicarbonate ion (over 90%, with most of the remainder being carbonate). Extreme storms such as hurricanes and typhoons bury a lot of carbon, because they wash away so much sediment. For instance, a team reported in the July 2008 issue of the journal Geology that a single typhoon in Taiwan buries as much carbon in the ocean—in the form of sediment—as all the other rains in that country all year long combined.[4] Inorganic carbon, that is carbon compounds with no carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds, is important in its reactions within water. This carbon exchange becomes important in controlling pH in the ocean and can also vary as a source or sink for carbon. Carbon is readily exchanged between the atmosphere and ocean. In regions of oceanic upwelling, carbon is released to the atmosphere. Conversely, regions of downwelling transfer carbon (CO2) from the atmosphere to the ocean. When CO2 enters the ocean, it participates in a series of reactions which are locally in equilibrium:


CO2(atmospheric) CO2(dissolved)

Conversion to carbonic acid:

CO2(dissolved) + H2O H2CO3

First ionization:

H2CO3 H+ + HCO3 (bicarbonate ion)

Second ionization:

HCO3 H+ + CO3−− (carbonate ion)

This set of reactions, each of which has its own equilibrium coefficient, determines the form that inorganic carbon takes in the oceans[5]. The coefficients, which have been determined empirically for ocean water, are themselves functions of temperature, pressure, and the presence of other ions (especially borate). In the ocean the equilibria strongly favor bicarbonate. Since this ion is three steps removed from atmospheric CO2, the level of inorganic carbon storage in the ocean does not have a proportion of unity to the atmospheric partial pressure of CO2. The factor for the ocean is about ten: that is, for a 10% increase in atmospheric CO2, oceanic storage (in equilibrium) increases by about 1%, with the exact factor dependent on local conditions. This buffer factor is often called the "Revelle Factor", after Roger Revelle.

In the oceans, carbonate can combine with calcium to form limestone (calcium carbonate, CaCO3, with silica), which precipitates to the ocean floor. Limestone is the largest reservoir of carbon in the carbon cycle. The calcium comes from the weathering of calcium-silicate rocks, which causes the silicon in the rocks to combine with oxygen to form sand or quartz (silicon dioxide), leaving calcium ions available to form limestone[6].

See also


  1. ^ Sedjo, Roger.1993. The Carbon Cycle and Global Forest Ecosystem. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 70, 295-307. (via Oregon Wild Report on Forests, Carbon, and Global Warming)
  2. ^ Trends in Carbon Dioxide — NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory
  3. ^ Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) (2005-06-09). ""Sinkers" provide missing piece in deep-sea puzzle". Press release. Retrieved 2007-10-07. 
  4. ^ Typhoons Bury Tons of Carbon in the Oceans Newswise, Retrieved on July 27, 2008.
  5. ^ Millero, Frank J. (2005). Chemical Oceanography (3 ed.). CRC Press. ISBN 0849322804. 
  6. ^ Notes, Lecture. "The Carbon Cycle". Department of Atmospheric Sciences. University of Washington. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 

Further reading

External links

Simple English

The carbon cycle is the way carbon is stored and replaced on Earth. Some of the main events take hundreds of millions of years, others happen annually.

The main way carbon gets into the atmosphere is by volcanoes belching out carbon dioxide, CO2. No other process is so large, and this fact is not shown in the diagram below.

The main way carbon gets taken out of the atmosphere is by photosynthesis by living organisms. Some of this gets released as they die and decompose, but a proportion gets buried in sediment. This is shown in the diagram. Sediment turns to rock, and it is the carbonate rocks like limestone which contain the now-solid CO2.

One other process takes CO2 out of the air. Weathering by rain washes out CO2 in the form of dilute carbonic acid. This reacts with rock, helping to dissolve and destroy it. This also ends up as sediment.

"Weathering is a large consumer of the atmospheric carbon dioxide essential for dissolving rocks".[1]

The store of carbon in sedimentary rock is far greater than the CO2 in the atmosphere (this also is not shown in the diagram). Eventually it returns to the air as oceanic plates subduct in plate tectonics. At the margins of plate boundaries (and some other places) volcanoes form and spew out CO2. This completes the cycle.

File:Carbon cycle-cute
Diagram of the carbon cycle. The black numbers show how much carbon is stored at each stage, in billions of tons ("GtC" stands for gigatons of carbon and figures were recorded around 2004). The purple numbers show how much carbon moves between each stage every year. The sediments, as defined in this diagram, do not include the ~70 million GtC of carbonate rock and kerogen (other organic deposits).

The Carbon Cycle is a process where carbon is recycled through the ecosystem. The concentration of carbon in living matter (18%) is almost 100 times greater than its concentration in the earth (0.19%). So living things extract carbon from their nonliving environment. For life to continue, this carbon must be recycled.[2] See the diagram for a detailed look at the carbon cycle. An example of a route carbon takes in this cycle is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by plants and used in photosynthesis to produce sugars which the plant uses for energy. When the plant dies, it decomposes and the carbon stored in the plant will, over millions of years, form into coal (a fossil fuel). The coal is burnt and gives off carbon dioxide which goes into the atmosphere. Also the carbon cycle has to relate to quantum mechanics due to the restoration of water

At the moment, the carbon cycle, and how human activity is affecting it, is a big topic in international news. Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource which means that once we've burned them all, there is not any more, and our use of fossil fuels has nearly doubled every 20 years since 1900.[3] Also, the burning of fossil fuels produces pollution which contributes to the greenhouse effect and acid rain.


  1. Van Andel T.H. 1994. New views on an old planet:a history of global change. Cambridge University Press. p233

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address