Since 1958 scientist Charles Keeling and others have measured the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in Hawaii. The yearly fluctuations in carbon dioxide are due to seasonal plant growth, while the overall rise in carbon dioxide over many years is due to a combination of fossil fuel burning, deforestation, and cement production.
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Windows to the Universe based on data from NOAA and UCSD
The Carbon Cycle Changes
Carbon moves naturally to and from various parts of the Earth. This
is called the carbon
cycle. Today, however, scientists have found that
more carbon is moving into the atmosphere from other parts of the Earth. It
moves into the atmosphere when fossil fuels, like coal and oil, are burned.
It moves into the atmosphere when forests burn.
The carbon in the atmosphere is in molecules of carbon
dioxide (CO2). Carbon
dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. By
increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Earth
is becoming warmer.
Even if people stopped adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere now, Earth
would continue to warm for a long time. Carbon dioxide does not
leave the atmosphere quickly; it can spend many centuries up there. Over time,
carbon can move slowly out of the atmosphere and into plants. The plants take
the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they make their food from the Sun’s
energy by photosynthesis. Carbon can also move into ocean
water or be
stored in rocks. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere faster than
all the plants on Earth can take it out. Scientists are studying ways to move
some of the carbon out of the atmosphere.
This isn’t the first time that there have been high amounts of carbon dioxide
in the Earth’s atmosphere. The carbon cycle has changed throughout
the billions of years of Earth’s history. However, prehistoric changes
happened for different reasons. During the Paleozoic
, tons of volcanic
spewed lava, ash, and gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The lava
fell to the ground right away. Most of the ash fell to the ground within
a few days to weeks. But the carbon dioxide stayed in the atmosphere for hundreds
of years! Today, the amount of volcanic eruptions is very low compared
with other times in the past, yet the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
is high because of burning forests and fossil fuels.
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The Spring 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist
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