The Carbon Cycle

A previous version of this article, written in 2001, is now archived as a PDF file.

By Holli Riebeek Design by Robert Simmon June 16, 2011

Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilizations—our economies, our homes, our means of transport—are built on carbon. We need carbon, but that need is also entwined with one of the most serious problems facing us today: global climate change.

Photograph of a forest.
Photograph of a coal fire.

Carbon is both the foundation of all life on Earth, and the source of the majority of energy consumed by human civilization. [Photographs ©2007 MorBCN (top) and ©2009 sarahluv (lower).]

Forged in the heart of aging stars, carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the Universe. Most of Earth’s carbon—about 65,500 billion metric tons—is stored in rocks. The rest is in the ocean, atmosphere, plants, soil, and fossil fuels.

Carbon flows between each reservoir in an exchange called the carbon cycle, which has slow and fast components. Any change in the cycle that shifts carbon out of one reservoir puts more carbon in the other reservoirs. Changes that put carbon gases into the atmosphere result in warmer temperatures on Earth.

Draft diagram of the carbon cycle.

This diagram of the fast carbon cycle shows the movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and oceans. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, and red are human contributions in gigatons of carbon per year. White numbers indicate stored carbon. (Diagram adapted from U.S. DOE, Biological and Environmental Research Information System.)

Over the long term, the carbon cycle seems to maintain a balance that prevents all of Earth’s carbon from entering the atmosphere (as is the case on Venus) or from being stored entirely in rocks. This balance helps keep Earth’s temperature relatively stable, like a thermostat.

This thermostat works over a few hundred thousand years, as part of the slow carbon cycle. This means that for shorter time periods—tens to a hundred thousand years—the temperature of Earth can vary. And, in fact, Earth swings between ice ages and warmer interglacial periods on these time scales. Parts of the carbon cycle may even amplify these short-term temperature changes.

Graph of oxygen isotope ratios in the deep ocean for the past 67 million years.

The uplift of the Himalaya, beginning 50 million years ago, reset Earth’s thermostat by providing a large source of fresh rock to pull more carbon into the slow carbon cycle through chemical weathering. The resulting drop in temperatures and the formation of ice sheets changed the ratio between heavy and light oxygen in the deep ocean, as shown in this graph. (Graph based on data from Zachos at al., 2001.)

On very long time scales (millions to tens of millions of years), the movement of tectonic plates and changes in the rate at which carbon seeps from the Earth’s interior may change the temperature on the thermostat. Earth has undergone such a change over the last 50 million years, from the extremely warm climates of the Cretaceous (roughly 145 to 65 million years ago) to the glacial climates of the Pleistocene (roughly 1.8 million to 11,500 years ago). [See Divisions of Geologic Time—Major Chronostratigraphic and Geochronologic Units for more information about geological eras.]

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