Shop Windows to the Universe

We now offer the Cool It! card game in our Science Store. Cool It! is the new card game from UCS that teaches kids about the choices we have when it comes to climate change.
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.
Click on image for full size
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 Sunís 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 isnít the first time that there have been high amounts of carbon dioxide in the Earthís atmosphere. The carbon cycle has changed throughout the billions of years of Earthís history. However, prehistoric changes happened for different reasons. During the Paleozoic, tons of volcanic eruptions 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.
Last modified October 26, 2007 by Lisa Gardiner.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Cool It! is the new card game from the Union of Concerned Scientists that teaches kids about the choices we have when it comes to climate changeóand how policy and technology decisions made today will matter. Cool It! is available in our online store.

Windows to the Universe Community



You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Carbon Dioxide - CO2

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a kind of gas. There isn't that much carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, but it is still very important. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means it helps trap heat coming...more

Effects of Climate Change Today

Over 100 years ago, people worldwide began burning more coal and oil for homes, factories, and transportation. Burning these fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere....more


Photosynthesis is the name of the process by which autotrophs (self-feeders) convert water, carbon dioxide, and solar energy into sugars and oxygen. It is a complex chemical process by which plants and...more

A New Plan to Help Earthís Changing Climate

Leaders from 192 countries are meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark December 7-18, 2009 to decide how the world will deal with climate change. They are trying to decide how to limit the amount of greenhouse...more

What Is Climate?

The climate where you live is called regional climate. It is the average weather in a place over more than thirty years. To describe the regional climate of a place, people often tell what the temperatures...more

Earth's Greenhouse Gases

Even though only a tiny amount of the gases in Earthís atmosphere are greenhouse gases, they have a huge effect on climate. There are several different types of greenhouse gases. The major ones are carbon...more

Space Missions to study Earth's Atmosphere & Climate

Satellites that orbit Earth help us study Earth's atmosphere, weather, and climate. Here are a few of the many spacecraft that study our atmosphere. Aura was launched in July 2004. It is studying pollution,...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA