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This drawing shows the carbon cycle.
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The Carbon Cycle

Carbon is part of the ocean, air, rocks, soil and all living things. Carbon doesn’t stay in one place. It is always on the move!

  • Carbon moves from the air to plants.
    In the air, carbon is attached to oxygen in a gas called carbon dioxide. With help from the Sun, plants are able to pull this gas out of the air to make their food. The food is made of carbon and helps the plants to grow.
  • Carbon moves from plants to animals.
    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 the ground.
    When plants and animals die, their bodies, wood and leaves decay bringing the carbon into the ground. Some become buried miles underground 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 into the air. Animals get rid of carbon dioxide gas by exhaling. Even plants have a special way to exhale to get rid of carbon dioxide gas!
  • Carbon moves from fossil fuels to the atmosphere when fuels are burned.
    Fuels like coal, oil and gas are burned to power factories, cars and trucks. When burned, the fuels release carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. Each year, burning fossil fuels released an amount of carbon that weighs about as much as 100 million elephants!
  • Carbon moves from the atmosphere to the oceans.
    The oceans, and other bodies of water, soak up some of the carbon that is in the atmosphere.


Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It 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 much more carbon dioxide in the air today. More greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are causing our planet to become warmer.

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 Spring 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, focuses on the ocean, including articles on polar research, coral reefs, ocean acidification, and climate. Includes a gorgeous full color poster!

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