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This drawing shows the carbon cycle.
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The Carbon Cycle

The element carbon is a part of seawater, the atmosphere, rocks such as limestone and coal, soils, as well as all living things. On our dynamic planet, carbon is able to move from one of these realms to another as a part of the carbon cycle.
  • Carbon moves from the atmosphere to plants.
    In the atmosphere, carbon is attached to oxygen in a gas called carbon dioxide (CO2). Through the process of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is pulled from the air to produce food made from carbon for plant growth.
  • Carbon moves from plants to animals.
    Through food chains, the carbon that is in plants moves to the animals that eat them. Animals that eat other animals get the carbon from their food too.
  • Carbon moves from plants and animals to soils.
    When plants and animals die, their bodies, wood and leaves decays bringing the carbon into the ground. Some is buried and will become fossil fuels in millions and millions of years.
  • Carbon moves from living things to the atmosphere.
    Each time you exhale, you are releasing carbon dioxide gas (CO2) into the atmosphere. Animals and plants need to get rid of carbon dioxide gas through a process called respiration.
  • Carbon moves from fossil fuels to the atmosphere when fuels are burned.
    When humans burn fossil fuels to power factories, power plants, cars and trucks, most of the carbon quickly enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas. Each year, five and a half billion tons of carbon is released by burning fossil fuels. Of this massive amount, 3.3 billion tons stays in the atmosphere. Most of the remainder becomes dissolved in seawater.
  • Carbon moves from the atmosphere to the oceans.
    The oceans, and other bodies of water, absorb some carbon from the atmosphere. The carbon is dissolved into the water.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and traps heat in the atmosphere. Without it and other greenhouse gases, Earth would be a frozen world. But humans have burned so much fuel that there is about 30% more carbon dioxide in the air today than there was about 150 years ago. The atmosphere has not held this much carbon for at least 420,000 years according to data from ice cores. The recent increase in amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide is having a significant impact on the warming of our planet.

Carbon moves through our planet over longer time scales as well. For example, over millions of years weathering of rocks on land can add carbon to surface water which eventually runs off to the ocean. Over long time scales, carbon is removed from seawater when the shells and bones of marine animals and plankton collect on the sea floor. These shells and bones are made of limestone, which contains carbon. When they are deposited on the sea floor, carbon is stored from the rest of the carbon cycle for some amount of time. The amount of limestone deposited in the ocean depends somewhat on the amount of warm, tropical, shallow oceans on the planet because this is where prolific limestone-producing organisms such as corals live. The carbon can be released back to the atmosphere if the limestone melts or is metamorphosed in a subduction zone.

You can get your own minerals and fossils, as well as publications including issues of the National Earth Science Teachers Association Journal, The Earth Scientist, on rocks and minerals (Fall 2010), the ocean (Spring 2010), and Earth System science (Winter 2009) in our online store!

Last modified November 7, 2010 by Roberta Johnson.

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The Summer 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, available in our online store, includes articles on rivers and snow, classroom planetariums, satellites and oceanography, hands-on astronomy, and global warming.

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