Carbon cycle

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Movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and ocean in billions of tons per year. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, red are human contributions, white are stored carbon. The effects of volcanic and tectonic activity are not included. Carbon cycle.jpg
Movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and ocean in billions of tons per year. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, red are human contributions, white are stored carbon. The effects of volcanic and tectonic activity are not included.

The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere of the Earth. Carbon is the main component of biological compounds as well as a major component of many minerals such as limestone. Along with the nitrogen cycle and the water cycle, the carbon cycle comprises a sequence of events that are key to make Earth capable of sustaining life. It describes the movement of carbon as it is recycled and reused throughout the biosphere, as well as long-term processes of carbon sequestration to and release from carbon sinks.


The carbon cycle was discovered by Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley, and popularized by Humphry Davy. [2]

Main components

Carbon pools in the major reservoirs on earth. [3]
PoolQuantity (gigatons)
Ocean (total)38,400
Total inorganic37,400
Total organic1,000
Surface layer670
Deep layer36,730
Sedimentary carbonates> 60,000,000
Kerogens 15,000,000
Terrestrial biosphere (total)2,000
Living biomass600 - 1,000
Dead biomass1,200
Aquatic biosphere1 - 2
Fossil fuels (total)4,130
Other (peat)250

The global carbon cycle is now usually divided into the following major reservoirs of carbon interconnected by pathways of exchange: [4] :5–6

The carbon exchanges between reservoirs occur as the result of various chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes. The ocean contains the largest active pool of carbon near the surface of the Earth. [3] The natural flows of carbon between the atmosphere, ocean, terrestrial ecosystems, and sediments are fairly balanced so that carbon levels would be roughly stable without human influence. [5] [6]


The ocean and land have continued to absorb about half of all carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, even as anthropogenic emissions have risen dramatically in recent decades. It remains unclear if carbon absorption will continue at this rate. Carbon dioxide emissions global carbon cycle.jpg
The ocean and land have continued to absorb about half of all carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, even as anthropogenic emissions have risen dramatically in recent decades. It remains unclear if carbon absorption will continue at this rate.
Epiphytes on electric wires. This kind of plant takes both CO
2 and water from the atmosphere for living and growing. Epifitas en los cables de la luz electrica.JPG
Epiphytes on electric wires. This kind of plant takes both CO
and water from the atmosphere for living and growing.

Carbon in the Earth's atmosphere exists in two main forms: carbon dioxide and methane. Both of these gases absorb and retain heat in the atmosphere and are partially responsible for the greenhouse effect. [3] Methane produces a larger greenhouse effect per volume as compared to carbon dioxide, but it exists in much lower concentrations and is more short-lived than carbon dioxide, making carbon dioxide the more important greenhouse gas of the two. [8]

Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere primarily through photosynthesis and enters the terrestrial and oceanic biospheres. Carbon dioxide also dissolves directly from the atmosphere into bodies of water (ocean, lakes, etc.), as well as dissolving in precipitation as raindrops fall through the atmosphere. When dissolved in water, carbon dioxide reacts with water molecules and forms carbonic acid, which contributes to ocean acidity. It can then be absorbed by rocks through weathering. It also can acidify other surfaces it touches or be washed into the ocean. [9]

Human activities over the past two centuries have significantly increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide, both by modifying ecosystems' ability to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and by emitting it directly, e.g., by burning fossil fuels and manufacturing concrete. [3]

In the extremely far future (e.g 2-3 billion years), the rate at which carbon dioxide is absorbed into the soil via the carbonate–silicate cycle will likely increase due to expected changes in the sun as it ages. The expected increased luminosity of the Sun will likely speed up the rate of surface weathering. [10] This will eventually cause most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be squelched into the Earth's crust as carbonate. Though volcanoes will continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the short term, it will not be enough to keep the carbon dioxide level stable in the long term. [11] [ full citation needed ] Once the carbon dioxide level falls below 50 parts per million, C3 photosynthesis will no longer be possible. This is expected to occur about 600 million years from now.[ citation needed ]

Once the oceans on the Earth evaporate in about 1.1 billion years from now, [10] plate tectonics will very likely stop due to the lack of water to lubricate them. The lack of volcanoes pumping out carbon dioxide will cause the carbon cycle to end between 1 billion and 2 billion years into the future. [12] [ full citation needed ]

Terrestrial biosphere

A portable soil respiration system measuring soil CO
2 flux SRS1000 being used to measure soil respiration in the field..jpg
A portable soil respiration system measuring soil CO

The terrestrial biosphere includes the organic carbon in all land-living organisms, both alive and dead, as well as carbon stored in soils. About 500 gigatons of carbon are stored above ground in plants and other living organisms, [5] while soil holds approximately 1,500 gigatons of carbon. [13] Most carbon in the terrestrial biosphere is organic carbon, [14] while about a third of soil carbon is stored in inorganic forms, such as calcium carbonate. [15] Organic carbon is a major component of all organisms living on earth. Autotrophs extract it from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, converting it into organic carbon, while heterotrophs receive carbon by consuming other organisms.

Because carbon uptake in the terrestrial biosphere is dependent on biotic factors, it follows a diurnal and seasonal cycle. In CO
measurements, this feature is apparent in the Keeling curve. It is strongest in the northern hemisphere because this hemisphere has more land mass than the southern hemisphere and thus more room for ecosystems to absorb and emit carbon.

Carbon leaves the terrestrial biosphere in several ways and on different time scales. The combustion or respiration of organic carbon releases it rapidly into the atmosphere. It can also be exported into the ocean through rivers or remain sequestered in soils in the form of inert carbon. [16] Carbon stored in soil can remain there for up to thousands of years before being washed into rivers by erosion or released into the atmosphere through soil respiration. Between 1989 and 2008 soil respiration increased by about 0.1% per year. [17] In 2008, the global total of CO
released by soil respiration was roughly 98 billion tonnes, about 10 times more carbon than humans are now putting into the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuel (this does not represent a net transfer of carbon from soil to atmosphere, as the respiration is largely offset by inputs to soil carbon). There are a few plausible explanations for this trend, but the most likely explanation is that increasing temperatures have increased rates of decomposition of soil organic matter, which has increased the flow of CO
. The length of carbon sequestering in soil is dependent on local climatic conditions and thus changes in the course of climate change.


The ocean can be conceptually divided into a surface layer within which water makes frequent (daily to annual) contact with the atmosphere, and a deep layer below the typical mixed layer depth of a few hundred meters or less, within which the time between consecutive contacts may be centuries. The dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) in the surface layer is exchanged rapidly with the atmosphere, maintaining equilibrium. Partly because its concentration of DIC is about 15% higher [18] but mainly due to its larger volume, the deep ocean contains far more carbon—it's the largest pool of actively cycled carbon in the world, containing 50 times more than the atmosphere [3] —but the timescale to reach equilibrium with the atmosphere is hundreds of years: the exchange of carbon between the two layers, driven by thermohaline circulation, is slow. [3]

Carbon enters the ocean mainly through the dissolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a small fraction of which is converted into carbonate. It can also enter the ocean through rivers as dissolved organic carbon. It is converted by organisms into organic carbon through photosynthesis and can either be exchanged throughout the food chain or precipitated into the oceans' deeper, more carbon-rich layers as dead soft tissue or in shells as calcium carbonate. It circulates in this layer for long periods of time before either being deposited as sediment or, eventually, returned to the surface waters through thermohaline circulation. [5] Oceans are basic (~pH 8.2), hence CO
acidification shifts the pH of the ocean towards neutral.

Oceanic absorption of CO
is one of the most important forms of carbon sequestering limiting the human-caused rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, this process is limited by a number of factors. CO
absorption makes water more acidic, which affects ocean biosystems. The projected rate of increasing oceanic acidity could slow the biological precipitation of calcium carbonates, thus decreasing the ocean's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. [19] [20]


The geologic component of the carbon cycle operates slowly in comparison to the other parts of the global carbon cycle. It is one of the most important determinants of the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and thus of global temperatures. [21]

Most of the earth's carbon is stored inertly in the earth's lithosphere. [3] Much of the carbon stored in the earth's mantle was stored there when the earth formed. [22] Some of it was deposited in the form of organic carbon from the biosphere. [23] Of the carbon stored in the geosphere, about 80% is limestone and its derivatives, which form from the sedimentation of calcium carbonate stored in the shells of marine organisms. The remaining 20% is stored as kerogens formed through the sedimentation and burial of terrestrial organisms under high heat and pressure. Organic carbon stored in the geosphere can remain there for millions of years. [21]

Carbon can leave the geosphere in several ways. Carbon dioxide is released during the metamorphism of carbonate rocks when they are subducted into the earth's mantle. This carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere and ocean through volcanoes and hotspots. [22] It can also be removed by humans through the direct extraction of kerogens in the form of fossil fuels. After extraction, fossil fuels are burned to release energy and emit the carbon they store into the atmosphere.

Deep carbon cycle

Although deep carbon cycling is not as well-understood as carbon movement through the atmosphere, terrestrial biosphere, ocean, and geosphere, it is nonetheless an incredibly important process. The deep carbon cycle is intimately connected to the movement of carbon in the Earth's surface and atmosphere. If the process did not exist, carbon would remain in the atmosphere, where it would accumulate to extremely high levels over long periods of time. [24] Therefore, by allowing carbon to return to the Earth, the deep carbon cycle plays a critical role in maintaining the terrestrial conditions necessary for life to exist.

Figure depicting the movement of oceanic plates--which carry carbon compounds--through the mantle Flux of crustal material in the mantle.jpg
Figure depicting the movement of oceanic plates—which carry carbon compounds—through the mantle

Furthermore, the process is also significant simply due to the massive quantities of carbon it transports through the planet. In fact, studying the composition of basaltic magma and measuring carbon dioxide flux out of volcanoes reveals that the amount of carbon in the mantle is actually greater than that on the Earth's surface by a factor of one thousand. [25] Drilling down and physically observing deep-Earth carbon processes is evidently extremely difficult, as the lower mantle and core extend from 660 to 2,891 km and 2,891 to 6,371  km deep into the Earth respectively. Accordingly, not much is conclusively known regarding the role of carbon in the deep Earth. Nonetheless, several pieces of evidence—many of which come from laboratory simulations of deep Earth conditions—have indicated mechanisms for the element's movement down into the lower mantle, as well as the forms that carbon takes at the extreme temperatures and pressures of said layer. Furthermore, techniques like seismology have led to a greater understanding of the potential presence of carbon in the Earth's core.

Carbon in the lower mantle

Carbon principally enters the mantle in the form of carbonate-rich sediments on tectonic plates of ocean crust, which pull the carbon into the mantle upon undergoing subduction. Not much is known about carbon circulation in the mantle, especially in the deep Earth, but many studies have attempted to augment our understanding of the element's movement and forms within said region. For instance, a 2011 study demonstrated that carbon cycling extends all the way to the lower mantle. The study analyzed rare, super-deep diamonds at a site in Juina, Brazil, determining that the bulk composition of some of the diamonds' inclusions matched the expected result of basalt melting and crytallisation under lower mantle temperatures and pressures. [26] Thus, the investigation's findings indicate that pieces of basaltic oceanic lithosphere act as the principle transport mechanism for carbon to Earth's deep interior. These subducted carbonates can interact with lower mantle silicates, eventually forming super-deep diamonds like the one found. [27]

Diagram of carbon tetrahedrally bonded to oxygen Carbon tetrahedral oxygen.png
Diagram of carbon tetrahedrally bonded to oxygen

However, carbonates descending to the lower mantle encounter other fates in addition to forming diamonds. In 2011, carbonates were subjected to an environment similar to that of 1800 km deep into the Earth, well within the lower mantle. Doing so resulted in the formations of magnesite, siderite, and numerous varieties of graphite. [28] Other experiments—as well as petrologic observations—support this claim, indicating that magnesite is actually the most stable carbonate phase in most part of the mantle. This is largely a result of its higher melting temperature. [29] Consequently, scientists have concluded that carbonates undergo reduction as they descend into the mantle before being stabilised at depth by low oxygen fugacity environments. Magnesium, iron, and other metallic compounds act as buffers throughout the process. [30] The presence of reduced, elemental forms of carbon like graphite would indicate that carbon compounds are reduced as they descend into the mantle.

Polymorphism alters carbonate compounds' stability at different depths within the Earth. To illustrate, laboratory simulations and density functional theory calculations suggest that tetrahedrally coordinated carbonates are most stable at depths approaching the core–mantle boundary. [31] [28] A 2015 study indicates that the lower mantle's high pressure causes carbon bonds to transition from sp2 to sp3 hybridised orbitals, resulting in carbon tetrahedrally bonding to oxygen. [32] CO3 trigonal groups cannot form polymerisable networks, while tetrahedral CO4 can, signifying an increase in carbon's coordination number, and therefore drastic changes in carbonate compounds' properties in the lower mantle. As an example, preliminary theoretical studies suggest that high pressure causes carbonate melt viscosity to increase; the melts' lower mobility as a result of its increased viscosity causes large deposits of carbon deep into the mantle. [33]

Figure depicting carbon outgassing through various processes Carbon Outgassing (Dasgupta 2011).png
Figure depicting carbon outgassing through various processes

Accordingly, carbon can remain in the lower mantle for long periods of time, but large concentrations of carbon frequently find their way back to the lithosphere. This process, called carbon outgassing, is the result of carbonated mantle undergoing decompression melting, as well as mantle plumes carrying carbon compounds up towards the crust. [35] Carbon is oxidised upon its ascent towards volcanic hotspots, where it is then released as CO2. This occurs so that the carbon atom matches the oxidation state of the basalts erupting in such areas. [36]

Carbon in the core

Analysis of shear wave velocities has played an integral role in the development of knowledge about carbon's existence in the core Speeds of seismic waves.PNG
Analysis of shear wave velocities has played an integral role in the development of knowledge about carbon's existence in the core

Although the presence of carbon in the Earth's core is well-constrained, recent studies suggest large inventories of carbon could be stored in this region. Shear (S) waves moving through the inner core travel at about fifty percent of the velocity expected for most iron-rich alloys. [37] Because the core's composition is believed to be an alloy of crystalline iron and a small amount of nickel, this seismic anomaly indicates the presence of light elements, including carbon, in the core. [38] In fact, studies using diamond anvil cells to replicate the conditions in the Earth's core indicate that iron carbide (Fe7C3) matches the inner core's wave speed and density. Therefore, the iron carbide model could serve as an evidence that the core holds as much as 67% of the Earth's carbon. [39] Furthermore, another study found that in the pressure and temperature condition of the Earth's inner core, carbon dissolved in iron and formed a stable phase with the same Fe7C3 composition—albeit with a different structure from the one previously mentioned. [40] In summary, although the amount of carbon potentially stored in the Earth's core is not known, recent studies indicate that the presence of iron carbides can explain some of the geophysical observations.

Human influence

Human activity since the industrial era has changed the balance in the natural carbon cycle. Units are in gigatons. Carbon cycle human perturbation.png
Human activity since the industrial era has changed the balance in the natural carbon cycle. Units are in gigatons.
2 in Earth's atmosphere if half of global-warming emissions are not absorbed.
(NASA computer simulation). M15-162b-EarthAtmosphere-CarbonDioxide-FutureRoleInGlobalWarming-Simulation-20151109.jpg
in Earth's atmosphere if half of global-warming emissions are not absorbed.
(NASA computer simulation).

Since the industrial revolution, human activity has modified the carbon cycle by changing its components' functions and directly adding carbon to the atmosphere. [3]

The largest human impact on the carbon cycle is through direct emissions from burning fossil fuels, which transfers carbon from the geosphere into the atmosphere. The rest of this increase is caused mostly by changes in land-use, particularly deforestation.

Another direct human impact on the carbon cycle is the chemical process of calcination of limestone for clinker production, which releases CO
. [45] Clinker is an industrial precursor of cement.

Humans also influence the carbon cycle indirectly by changing the terrestrial and oceanic biosphere. [46] Over the past several centuries, direct and indirect human-caused land use and land cover change (LUCC) has led to the loss of biodiversity, which lowers ecosystems' resilience to environmental stresses and decreases their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. More directly, it often leads to the release of carbon from terrestrial ecosystems into the atmosphere. Deforestation for agricultural purposes removes forests, which hold large amounts of carbon, and replaces them, generally with agricultural or urban areas. Both of these replacement land cover types store comparatively small amounts of carbon so that the net product of the process is that more carbon stays in the atmosphere.

Other human-caused changes to the environment change ecosystems' productivity and their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Air pollution, for example, damages plants and soils, while many agricultural and land use practices lead to higher erosion rates, washing carbon out of soils and decreasing plant productivity.

Humans also affect the oceanic carbon cycle. [46] Current trends in climate change lead to higher ocean temperatures, thus modifying ecosystems. [47] [48] [49] Also, acid rain and polluted runoff from agriculture and industry change the ocean's chemical composition. Such changes can have dramatic effects on highly sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs, [50] [51] [52] thus limiting the ocean's ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere on a regional scale and reducing oceanic biodiversity globally.

Arctic methane emissions indirectly caused by anthropogenic global warming also affect the carbon cycle and contribute to further warming in what is known as climate change feedback.

On 12 November 2015, NASA scientists reported that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human sources continues to increase, reaching levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years. Currently, the rate of carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels is about double the net uptake by vegetation and the ocean. [41] [42] [43] [44]

See also

Related Research Articles

Carbon sink Natural reservoir storing carbon-containing molecules

A carbon sink is a natural reservoir that stores carbon-containing chemical compounds accumulated over an indefinite period of time. Public awareness of the significance of CO2 sinks has grown since passage of the Kyoto Protocol, which promotes their use as a form of carbon offset. There are also different strategies used to enhance this process.

Greenhouse effect Atmosopheric phenomenon

The greenhouse effect is the process by which radiation from a planet's atmosphere warms the planet's surface to a temperature above what it would be without this atmosphere.

Climate change (general concept) Change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns for an extended period

Climate change occurs when changes in Earth's climate system result in new weather patterns that remain in place for an extended period of time. This length of time can be as short as a few decades to as long as millions of years. Scientists have identified many episodes of climate change during Earth's geological history; more recently since the industrial revolution the climate has increasingly been affected by human activities driving global warming, and the terms are commonly used interchangeably in that context.

Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum rapid (in geological terms) global warming, profound changes in ecosystems, and major perturbations in the carbon cycle which started about 55.0 million years ago

The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), alternatively "Eocene thermal maximum 1" (ETM1), and formerly known as the "Initial Eocene" or "Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum", was a time period with more than 5–8 °C global average temperature rise across the event. This climate event occurred at the time boundary of the Paleocene and Eocene geological epochs. The exact age and duration of the event is uncertain but it is estimated to have occurred around 55.5 million years ago.

Paleosol soil type

In the geosciences, paleosol can have two meanings. The first meaning, common in geology and paleontology, refers to a former soil preserved by burial underneath either sediments or volcanic deposits, which in the case of older deposits have lithified into rock. In Quaternary geology, sedimentology, paleoclimatology, and geology in general, it is the typical and accepted practice to use the term "paleosol" to designate such "fossil soils" found buried within sedimentary and volcanic deposits exposed in all continents as illustrated by Retallack (2001), Kraus (1999), and other published papers and books.

Faint young Sun paradox Paradox concerning water on early Earth

The faint young Sun paradox or faint young Sun problem describes the apparent contradiction between observations of liquid water early in Earth's history and the astrophysical expectation that the Sun's output would be only 70 percent as intense during that epoch as it is during the modern epoch. The issue was raised by astronomers Carl Sagan and George Mullen in 1972. Proposed resolutions of this paradox have taken into account greenhouse effects, changes to planetary albedo, astrophysical influences, or combinations of these suggestions.

Ocean acidification Ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earths oceans, caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide

Ocean acidification is the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth's oceans, caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO
) from the atmosphere. Seawater is slightly basic (meaning pH > 7), and ocean acidification involves a shift towards pH-neutral conditions rather than a transition to acidic conditions (pH < 7). An estimated 30–40% of the carbon dioxide from human activity released into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans, rivers and lakes. Some of it reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. Some of the resulting carbonic acid molecules dissociate into a bicarbonate ion and a hydrogen ion, thus increasing ocean acidity (H+ ion concentration). Between 1751 and 1996, surface ocean pH is estimated to have decreased from approximately 8.25 to 8.14, representing an increase of almost 30% in H+ ion concentration in the world's oceans. Earth System Models project that, by around 2008, ocean acidity exceeded historical analogues and, in combination with other ocean biogeochemical changes, could undermine the functioning of marine ecosystems and disrupt the provision of many goods and services associated with the ocean beginning as early as 2100.

Carbon sequestration Methods of reducing net emissions by capturing and storing large volumes of carbon dioxide

Carbon sequestration or carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is the long-term removal, capture or sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow or reverse atmospheric CO2 pollution and to mitigate or reverse global warming.

Climate system Interactions that create Earths climate and may result in climate change

Earth's climate arises from the interaction of five major climate system components: the atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water), the cryosphere, the lithosphere and the biosphere. Climate is the average weather, typically over a period of 30 years, and is determined by a combination of processes in the climate system, such as ocean currents and wind patterns. Circulation in the atmosphere and oceans is primarily driven by solar radiation and transports heat from the tropical regions to regions that receive less energy from the Sun. The water cycle also moves energy throughout the climate system. In addition, different chemical elements, necessary for life, are constantly recycled between the different components.

Carbon dioxide in Earths atmosphere Atmospheric constituent; greenhouse gas

Carbon dioxide is an important trace gas in Earth's atmosphere. It is an integral part of the carbon cycle, a biogeochemical cycle in which carbon is exchanged between the Earth's oceans, soil, rocks and the biosphere. Plants and other photoautotrophs use solar energy to produce carbohydrate from atmospheric carbon dioxide and water by photosynthesis. Almost all other organisms depend on carbohydrate derived from photosynthesis as their primary source of energy and carbon compounds. CO
absorbs and emits infrared radiation at wavelengths of 4.26 µm and 14.99 µm and consequently is a greenhouse gas that plays a significant role in influencing Earth's surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.

Carbonate–silicate cycle term in chemistry: long-term transformation of silicate rocks to carbonate rocks by weathering and sedimentation, and the transformation of carbonate rocks back into silicate rocks by metamorphism and volcanism

The carbonate–silicate geochemical cycle, also known as the inorganic carbon cycle, describes the long-term transformation of silicate rocks to carbonate rocks by weathering and sedimentation, and the transformation of carbonate rocks back into silicate rocks by metamorphism and volcanism. Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere during burial of weathered minerals and returned to the atmosphere through volcanism. On million-year time scales, the carbonate-silicate cycle is a key factor in controlling Earth's climate because it regulates carbon dioxide levels and therefore global temperature.

Climate change feedback for positive and negative feedbacks associated with climate change

Climate change feedback is important in the understanding of global warming because feedback processes may amplify or diminish the effect of each climate forcing, and so play an important part in determining the climate sensitivity and future climate state. Feedback in general is the process in which changing one quantity changes a second quantity, and the change in the second quantity in turn changes the first. Positive feedback amplifies the change in the first quantity while negative feedback reduces it.

The permafrost carbon cycle is a sub-cycle of the larger global carbon cycle. Permafrost is defined as subsurface material that remains below 0o C for at least two consecutive years. Because permafrost soils remain frozen for long periods of time, they store large amounts of carbon and other nutrients within their frozen framework during that time. Permafrost represents a large carbon reservoir that is seldom considered when determining global terrestrial carbon reservoirs. Recent and ongoing scientific research however, is changing this view.

The atmosphere is one of the Earth's major carbon reservoirs and an important component of the global carbon cycle, holding approximately 720 gigatons of carbon. Atmospheric carbon plays an important role in the greenhouse effect. The most important carbon compound in this respect is the gas carbon dioxide. Although it is a small percentage of the atmosphere, it plays a vital role in retaining heat in the atmosphere and thus in the greenhouse effect. Other gases with effects on the climate containing carbon in the atmosphere are methane and chlorofluorocarbons. Emissions by humans in the past 200 years have almost doubled the amount carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The carbon cycle is an essential part of life on Earth. About half the dry weight of most living organisms is carbon. It plays an important role in the structure, biochemistry, and nutrition of all living cells. Living biomass holds about 550 gigatons of carbon, most of which is made of terrestrial plants (wood), while some 1,200 gigatons of carbon are stored in the terrestrial biosphere as dead biomass.

Oceanic carbon cycle Processes that exchange carbon between various pools within the ocean and the atmosphere, Earth interior, and the seafloor.

The oceanic carbon cycle is composed of processes that exchange carbon between various pools within the ocean as well as between the atmosphere, Earth interior, and the seafloor. The carbon cycle is a result of many interacting forces across multiple time and space scales that circulates carbon around the planet, ensuring that carbon is available globally. The Oceanic carbon cycle is a central process to the global carbon cycle and contains both inorganic carbon and organic carbon. Part of the marine carbon cycle transforms carbon between non-living and living matter.

The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) is a global research program designed to transform understanding of carbon's role in Earth. DCO is a community of scientists, including biologists, physicists, geoscientists and chemists, whose work crosses several traditional disciplinary lines to develop the new, integrative field of deep carbon science. To complement this research, the DCO's infrastructure includes public engagement and education, online and offline community support, innovative data management, and novel instrumentation development.

Chemical cycling

Chemical cycling describes systems of repeated circulation of chemicals between other compounds, states and materials, and back to their original state, that occurs in space, and on many objects in space including the Earth. Active chemical cycling is known to occur in stars, many planets and natural satellites.

The geochemistry of carbon is the study of the transformations involving the element carbon within the systems of the Earth. To a large extent this study is organic geochemistry, but it also includes the very important carbon dioxide. Carbon is transformed by life, and moves between the major phases of the Earth, including the water bodies, atmosphere, and the rocky parts. Carbon is important in the formation of organic mineral deposits, such as coal, petroleum or natural gas. Most carbon is cycled through the atmosphere into living organisms and then respirated back into the atmosphere. However an important part of the carbon cycle involves the trapping of living matter into sediments. The carbon then becomes part of a sedimentary rock when lithification happens. Human technology or natural processes such as weathering, or underground life or water can return the carbon from sedimentary rocks to the atmosphere. From that point it can be transformed in the rock cycle into metamorphic rocks, or melted into igneous rocks. Carbon can return to the surface of the Earth by volcanoes or via uplift in tectonic processes. Carbon is returned to the atmosphere via volcanic gases. Carbon undergoes transformation in the mantle under pressure to diamond and other minerals, and also exists in the Earth's outer core in solution with iron, and may also be present in the inner core.

The deep carbon cycle is the movement of carbon through the Earth's mantle and core. It forms part of the carbon cycle and is intimately connected to the movement of carbon in the Earth's surface and atmosphere. By returning carbon to the deep Earth, it plays a critical role in maintaining the terrestrial conditions necessary for life to exist. Without it, carbon would accumulate in the atmosphere, reaching extremely high concentrations over long periods of time.


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