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The Carbon Cycle

Technical Report · August 2017

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.15706.64962


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A. Balasubramanian
University of Mysore


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The Carbon cycle

Prof. A. Balasubramanian,
Centre for Advanced Studies in Earth
University of Mysore, Mysore
The Topic of discussion today is about
Carbon cycle. It is one of the units in
environmental studies and ecology.

Earth is a unique planet in the solar system.

It is the third planet located at 150 million
km from the sun. Earth is truly a
remarkable planet. It is the only planet
which has all the components necessary to
support life. Earth is almost 4.5 billion
years old.
Earth is a dynamic evolving system
Land, water, air and living organisms are
the four major components involved in
several dynamic processes.
There are many environmental factors
influencing the life support activities on
Life on earth depends on the environmental
factors like air, water, light, soil, minerals,
food and various forms of energy.
These are all distributed over the earth in
typical segments called as earth’s
environmental segments.
We often called it as mother earth as she
provides food, shelter, energy and all other
natural resources required for our survival.
Animals and plants live almost everywhere
on the surface of Earth.
Environmental segments of the earth:
The Earth’ s environmental segments
include atmosphere, hydrosphere,
lithosphere and biosphere.
Only about 29% of the total surface area of
the earth is covered by land.
Almost 71% of the total surface area are
covered by water
Atmosphere is attached to the earth by
Climate is the characteristic condition of
the atmosphere near the earth's surface.
The climate of a region will determine
what type of plants will grow in a place,
and what animals will inhabit it.

All three components, climate, plants and

animals are interwoven to create the fabric
of a biome.
Is the outer, rigid shell of the Earth,
situated above the asthenosphere and
containing the crust, continents, and plates.
It is the major component of the Earth
comprising of crust, mantle and core.
On the surface of the earth it is mainly
referred to the rocks, soils, minerals and
The Common elements found in the Earth's
rocks are as shown here
Element Percent Weight in Earth's Crust
Oxygen 46.60
Silicon 27.72
Aluminum 8.13
Iron 5.00
Calcium 3.63
Sodium 2.83
Potassium 2.59
Magnesium 2.09
And many more elements exist in lesser
The Hydrosphere
Is the aqueous envelope of the Earth. It
includes the oceans, freshwater lakes,
rivers, saline lakes and inland seas, soil
moisture and vadose water, groundwater
and the atmospheric water vapor.
Water is an essential component for life. It
is an ingredient for producing many
resources, catalyst for many processes and
a good carrier of nutrients.
It is a home for many aquatic life.
Hydrosphere is an important segment on
Is the Big Ball of Life.
It is the world where all of the other
spheres of the planet work together.
If we think about the interactions for a
The land interacts with the water
The land interacts with the air.
The land even interacts with forces deep
inside the Earth and also with the energy
coming to the Earth from space.
All of those forces work together to create
the living world.
The smallest of factors in the biosphere
work on a molecular level.
Chemical erosion is a great example of a
landscape changing one molecule at a time.
Oxidation and reduction reactions happen
all the time, changing the composition of
rocks and organic materials.
It's not just chemistry at work on the
molecular level.
Tiny organisms such as bacteria and single-
celled organisms are constantly working to
break down materials (organic and
inorganic) and change the world.
Environmental parameters
There are several limiting factors in an
environment which determine whether an
organism can live in a particular
Limiting factors on land include
temperature, water, light, competition, and
Every organism needs certain requirements
for its survival.
If we look at the functions of an
ecosystem, we have 5 important functions:
Flow of energy through the medium of
living organisms and their activities
Food chains
Biodiversity and biomass
Circulation and transformation of elements
and nutrients
Development, evolution and Control.
Essential aspects of the globe
Geological processes
Sun’s Radiant energy
Earth’s Gravity
Transformation of states of matter
Hydrological Cycle
Nutrient cycles
The specific functional processes of an
ecosystem include
predator - prey relations (herbivory,
carnivory, parasitism and
Nutrients Essential for Life
Living organisms require the availability of
about 20 to 30 chemical elements for the
various of metabolic processes that take
place in their bodies.
Some products of this metabolism require
relatively few nutrients for their
For example, carbohydrates are
photosynthesized from just water and
carbon dioxide.
Some organic substances, like amino acids
and proteins, are more complex in their
chemical make up and therefore require a
number of different nutrients.
The types of nutrient needed by life is often
categorized into two groups.
Elements required in relatively large
amounts are generally referred to as
Macronutrients that constitute more than 1
% each of dry weight include carbon,
oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and
Macronutrients that constitute 0.2 to 1 % of
dry organic weight include sulfur, chlorine,
potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium,
iron, and copper.
Nutrients needed in trace amounts are
generally called micronutrients.
These elements often constitute less than
0.2 % of dry organic matter.
Some common micronutrients required by
living organisms include aluminum, boron,
bromine, chromium, cobalt, fluorine,
gallium, iodine, manganese, molybdenum,
selenium, silicon, strontium, tin, titanium,
vanadium, and zinc.
Large quantities of nutrients are added to
ecosystems from the atmosphere.
This addition is done either through
precipitation or by a number of biological
Oxygen – is given off by way of
Carbon – is given off by way of
Nitrogen – is produced by lightning
Nitrogen, sulfur, chloride, calcium, and
sodium – are all deposited by way of
Nutrient Inputs to Ecosystems
Important nutrients for life generally enter
ecosystems by way of four processes:
Weathering , Atmospheric Input
Biological processes like Nitrogen Fixation
Symbiotic Fixation with Legumes
Symbiotic Fixation with Non-Legumes
Nutrient Outputs to Ecosystems:
Important nutrients required for life leave
ecosystems by way of four processes:
Gaseous losses
Emigration and harvesting.
Patterns of cycling nutrients:
The patterns of cycling nutrients in the
biosphere involves not only metabolism by
living organisms, but also a series of
strictly abiotic chemical reactions.
Understanding the circulation of a single
element requires the knowledge of a
process that depends jointly on the biology
of all organisms that utilize the element, its
geological availability, and its organic and
inorganic chemistry.
Thus, understanding the cycling of
biologically important elements is truly an
interdisciplinary subject and concept.
We call these processes as biogeochemical

Biogeochemical cycles:
biogeochemical cycles have both an
organic and an inorganic components.
They are extremely important.
How efficiently the nutrients move through
the organic component back to the
inorganic reservoirs determines how much
is available to organisms over the short
The major reservoirs for all metabolically
important elements are found either in the
atmosphere, lithosphere (mainly rock, soil
and other weathered sediments) or
Flow in the inorganic phase generally tends
to be slower than in the organic phase.

Two categories of biogeochemical cycles

Gaseous cycles and
Sedimentary cycles.
Based on the nature of element involved.
Gaseous cycles
Atmosphere and hydrosphere play a
dominant role in the cycling of gaseous
molecules. They are the reservoirs of
The major cycles of this group are:
Oxygen cycle
Carbon cycle
Nitrogen cycle
Chlorine cycle
Hydrogen cycle
Sedimentary cycles
The major elements involved in the
sedimentary cycles are phosphorous and
sulphur in which Sulphur can also occur in
gaseous forms.
These elements circulate through soil,
sediments, water and organisms.
The reservoir or the prime source of these
elements (or macronutrients) is the earth's
Sedimentary cycle is a part of the global
geochemical cycle.


Carbon is the fundamental component of
all organic compounds.
It is one of the primary elements of life,
involved in the fixation of energy by
The biosphere includes a complex mixture
of carbon compounds.
They are originated, transformed and
decomposed within this sphere.

Estimated major stores of carbon on the


Carbon (C) is the fourth most abundant

element in the Universe, after hydrogen
(H), helium (He), and oxygen (O), is the
building block of life.
It’s the element that anchors all organic
substances, from fossil fuels to DNA.
Not only is carbon found in all living
things, the element is present in the
atmosphere, in the layers of limestone
sediment on the ocean floor, and in fossil
fuels like coal. In terms of its abundance on
the Earth, carbon is relatively scarce (0.09
percent of the Earth's crust by mass), yet
for living organisms it is the single most
important element.
Carbon bonds with itself to form long
Other elements then bond to the sides of
such carbon chains, forming literally
millions of different organic compounds
that serve as the building blocks for the
bodies of plants and animals. For example,
enzymes, carbohydrates, and DNA are all
based on carbon.
Carbon has atomic number 6 and atomic
weight 12.011, and is represented by the
symbol C.
It occurs in two different isotopes and both
of them share the same atomic number,
hence the same identity as elements and
same chemical behavior, but have different
atomic weights.
The isotopes of carbon are carbon-12 (six
protons plus six neutrons) and carbon-14
(six protons plus eight neutrons).
Carbon-14- the biological clock
Carbon-14, which makes up one part per
trillion of all carbon, is radioactive, and
the rate at which it decays to carbon-12
provides a biological clock that scientists
use to determine the age of fossils.
Not to be confused with isotopes, carbon
also appears in a number of different
allotropes or physical forms.
The allotropes of carbon include graphite
and diamond.
Coal is a sedimentary deposit containing
full of carbon.

Fossil fuels
If we see carefully, all fossil fuels are
carbon-based; coal, petroleum, and natural
gas are all hydrocarbons.
They are used for combustion.
The byproducts of combustion of fossil
fuels are carbon monoxide and carbon
Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas, while
carbon dioxide is necessary for plant life.
Carbon dioxide also contributes to the
greenhouse effect. It is well-known that the
increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 is
linked to global warming.
The movement of carbon, in its many
forms, between the biosphere, atmosphere,
oceans, and geosphere is described as the
carbon cycle.
The carbon cycle is one of the integral part
of the biogeochemical cycles.
In this cycle, there are various sinks, or
stores, of carbon and processes by which
the various sinks exchange carbon.
Scientists consider 99.9% of all organisms
on the planet to be carbon based life.
Those organisms need carbon to survive.
Whether the carbon is in the form of a
sugar or carbon dioxide gas, we all need it.
Unlike energy, carbon is continuously
cycled and reused. The Earth only has a
fixed amount of carbon. The carbon cycle
is the ultimate form of recycling.
The carbon cycle is a four fold mechanism
The movement of carbon between
lithosphere and hydrosphere, involving the
process of sedimentation and weathering of
Movement of carbon-di-oxide between
atmosphere and hydrosphere through rain
and evaporation.
Movement of carbon compounds between
hydrosphere and biosphere through
respiration, decay and photosynthesis.
Movement of carbon between biosphere
and atmosphere through combustion,
photosynthesis, anaerobic decay and
The global carbon cycle
can be divided into two categories:
the geological carbon cycle, which operates
over large time scales (millions of years),
and the biological/physical carbon cycle,
which operates at shorter time scales (days
to thousands of years).
All the carbon that cycles through the
Earth’s systems today was present at the
birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years
Since those times, carbonic acid (a weak
acid derived from the reaction between
atmospheric carbon dioxide [CO2] and
water) has slowly but continuously
combined with calcium and magnesium in
the Earth’s crust to form insoluble
carbonates (carbon-containing chemical
compounds) through a process called
Then, through the process of erosion, the
carbonates are washed into the ocean and
eventually settle to the bottom.

The cycle continues as these materials are

drawn into Earth’s mantle by subduction (a
process in which one lithospheric plate
descends beneath another, often as a result
of folding or faulting) at the edges of
continental plates.
The carbon is then returned to the
atmosphere as carbon dioxide during
volcanic eruptions.

In the geological carbon cycle,

carbon moves between rocks and minerals,
seawater, and the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reacts
with some minerals to form the mineral
calcium carbonate (limestone).
This mineral is then dissolved by rainwater
and carried to the oceans.
Once it reaches the oceans, it can
precipitate out of the ocean water, forming
layers of sediment on the sea floor.
As the Earth’s plates move, through the
processes of plate tectonics, these
sediments are subducted underneath the
Under the great heat and pressure far below
the Earth’s surface, the limestone melts and
reacts with other minerals, releasing carbon
dioxide. The carbon dioxide is then re-
emitted into the atmosphere through
volcanic eruptions.The balance between
weathering, subduction, and volcanism
controls atmospheric carbon dioxide
concentrations over time periods of
hundreds of millions of years.
The oldest geologic sediments suggest that,
before life evolved, the concentration of
atmospheric carbon dioxide may have been
one-hundred times that of the present.
On the other hand, ice core samples taken
in Antarctica and Greenland have lead
scientists to hypothesize that carbon
dioxide concentrations during the last ice
age (20,000 years ago) were only half of
what they are today.
Biological/Physical Carbon Cycle:

Photosynthesis and Respiration:

Biological processes play a major role in
the movement of carbon in and out of the
land and ocean through the processes like
photosynthesis and respiration.
Nearly all forms of life on Earth depend on
the production of sugars from solar energy
and carbon dioxide (photosynthesis) and
the metabolism (respiration) of those
sugars to produce the chemical energy that
facilitates growth and reproduction.
During photosynthesis, plants absorb
carbon dioxide and sunlight to create
fuel—glucose and other sugars—for
building plant structures.
This process forms the foundation of the
biological carbon cycle

Through the process of photosynthesis,

green plants absorb solar energy and
remove carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere to produce carbohydrates
The following are the two important facts:
- Carbon (C) enters the biosphere during
CO2 + H2O ---> C6H12O6 + O2 + H2O
- Carbon is returned to the biosphere in
cellular respiration:
O2 +H2O + C6H12O6 ---> CO2 +H2O +
Every year there is a measurable difference
in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 in
phase with the seasons.
For example, in winter there is almost no
photosynthesis therefore there is a high
concentration of CO2.
During the growing season there is a
measurable concentration of atmospheric
CO2 over parts of each day.
For example, at sunrise photosynthesis
begins with the uptake of CO2, by
afternoon plant respiration increases, at
sunset stops so the concentration of CO2
in the atmosphere increases.

Plants and animals effectively “burn” these
carbohydrates (and other products derived
from them) through the process of
respiration, the reverse of photosynthesis.
Respiration releases the energy contained
in sugars for use in metabolism and renders
the carbohydrate“fuel” back to carbon

Respiration and decomposition

Together, respiration and decomposition
(respiration that consumes organic matter
mostly by bacteria and fungi) return the
biologically fixed carbon back to the
The amount of carbon taken up by
photosynthesis and released back to the
atmosphere by respiration each year is
1,000 times greater than the amount of
carbon that moves through the geological
cycle on an annual basis.

Photosynthesis and respiration also play an

important role in the long-term geological
cycling of carbon.
The presence of land vegetation enhances
the weathering of soil, leading to the long-
term—but slow—uptake of carbon dioxide
from the atmosphere.
In the oceans, some of the carbon taken up
by phytoplankton (microscopic marine
plants that form the basis of the marine
food chain) to make shells of calcium
carbonate (CaCO3) settles to the bottom
(after they die) to form sediments.
During times when photosynthesis
exceeded respiration, organic matter slowly
built up over millions of years to form coal
and oil deposits.
All of these biologically mediated
processes represent a removal of carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere and storage of
carbon in geologic sediments.
Combustion occurs when any organic
material is reacted (burned) in the presence
of oxygen to give off the products of
carbon dioxide and water and energy.
The organic material can be any fossil fuel
such as natural gas (methane), oil, or coal.
Other organic materials that combust are
wood, paper, plastics, and cloth.
Organic materials contain at least carbon
and hydrogen and may include oxygen.
If other elements are present they also
ultimately combine with oxygen to form a
variety of pollutant molecules such as
sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides.
Metabolism occurs in animals and humans
after the ingestion of organic plant or
animal foods.
In the cells a series of complex reactions
occurs with oxygen to convert for example
glucose sugar into the products of carbon
dioxide and water and energy.
This reaction is also carried out by bacteria
in the decomposition/decay of waste
materials on land and in the water.
Carbon cycle is a Three step process

The Ocean Carbon Cycle

Of all the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted
into the atmosphere, one quarter is taken up
by land plants, another quarter by the
The ocean absorbs CO2 from the
atmosphere in an attempt to reach
equilibrium by direct air-to-sea exchange.
This process takes place at an extremely
low rate, measured in hundreds to
thousands of years.
However, once dissolved in the ocean, a
carbon atom will stay there, on average,
more than 500 years.

Biological pump
Another process, called "the biological
pump," transfers CO2 from the ocean's
surface to its depths.
Warm waters at the surface can hold much
less CO2 than can cold waters in the deep.

Atmosphere contains about 5000 million
tones of gases. These gases are distributed
in an order depending upon their active
role in the world. The major part is
occupied by Nitrogen amounting to 78%,
followed by oxygen to 21%, carbon-di-
oxide to 0.33% and argon to 0.93%. Other
gases include argon, water vapour, carbon
dioxide, neon, helium, krypton, hydrogen,
xenon, and ozone.
The CO2:
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, and Earth is becoming a warmer
Carbon dioxide is used as a refrigerant, in
fire extinguishers, for inflating life rafts
and life jackets, blasting coal, foaming
rubber and plastics, promoting the growth
of plants in greenhouses, immobilizing
animals before slaughter, and in carbonated
At ordinary temperatures, carbon dioxide is
quite un-reactive; above 1,700 deg C
(3,100 F) it partially decomposes into
carbon monoxide and oxygen.
Hydrogen or carbon also convert it to
carbon monoxide at high temperatures.
Ammonia reacts with carbon dioxide
under pressure to form ammonium
carbamate, then urea, an important
component of fertilizers and plastics.
Carbon dioxide is slightly soluble in water.

Humans have also altered the biological

carbon cycle.
Humans have also altered the biological
carbon cycle, increasing atmospheric CO2
levels, through forest clearing and land use.
Trees store large amounts of carbon; when
they die and decompose, much of this
stored carbon is released as CO2.
However, when humans clear large
expanses of forest, primarily through the
use of fire, the levels of atmospheric
carbon are increased in two ways.
First, during combustion, stored carbon is
released directly into the air as CO2, and
second, the clearing of land takes away a
key mechanism for removing carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere (via
Human Impacts on the Carbon Cycle -
Fossil Fuels
Humans impact the carbon cycle during the
combustion of any type of fossil fuel,
which may include oil, coal, or natural gas.
Fossil Fuels were formed very long ago
from plant or animal remains that were
buried, compressed, and transformed into
oil, coal, or natural gas.
The carbon is said to be "fixed" in place
and is essentially locked out of the natural
carbon cycle. Humans intervene during by
burning the fossil fuels.
During combustion in the presence of air
(oxygen), carbon dioxide and water
molecules are released into the atmosphere.
Humans are generating 8 billion metric
tons of carbon each year primarily through
burning fossil fuels and land use;
however, only about half of this carbon
remains in the atmosphere.
Air-Water Exchanges:
On a global scale the carbon cycle involves
an exchange of CO2 between two great
reservoirs: the atmosphere and the earth's
Atmospheric CO2 enters water by diffusion
across the air-water surface.
If the CO2 concentration in the water is less
than that in the atmosphere, it diffuses into
water, but if the CO2 concentration is
greater in the water than in the atmosphere,
CO2 enters the atmosphere.
Additional exchanges take place within
aquatic ecosystems.
Excess carbon may combine with water to
form carbonates and bicarbonates.
Some carbon is incorporated in the forest-
vegetation biomass (living matter) and may
remain out of circulation for hundreds of
Incomplete decomposition of organic
matter in wet areas results in the
accumulation of peat.
Such accumulation during the
Carboniferous period created great stores
of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas.
Total Carbon Pool
The total carbon pool of the globe is
estimated at about 49,000 metric gigatons
(1 metric gigaton equals 109 metric tons)
It is distributed among organic and
inorganic forms.
Fossil carbon accounts for 22 percent of
the total pool.
The oceans contain 71 percent of the
world's carbon, mostly in the form of
bicarbonate and carbonate ions.
An additional 3 percent is in dead organic
matter and phytoplankton.
Terrestrial ecosystems, in which forests are
the main reservoir, hold about 3 percent of
the total carbon.
The remaining 1 percent is held in the
atmosphere, circulated, and used in
Additions to Atmosphere
Because of the burning of fossil fuels, the
clearing of forests, and other such
practices, the amount of CO2 in the
atmosphere has been increasing since the
Industrial Revolution.
Atmospheric concentrations have risen
from an estimated 260 to 300 parts per
million (ppm) in pre-industrial times to
more than 350 ppm today.
This increase accounts for only half of the
estimated amount of carbon dioxide poured
into the atmosphere.
The other 50 percent has probably been
taken up by and stored in the oceans.

The carbon cycle is obviously very

complex, and each process has an impact
on the other processes.
If primary production drops, then decay to
the soil drops.
But does this mean that decay from the soil
to the atmosphere will also drop and thus
balance out the cycle so that the store of
carbon in the atmosphere will remain
constant? Not necessarily.

What is known is that the carbon cycle

must be a closed system.
It means that there is a fixed amount of
carbon in the world.
The warming of global temperatures also is
changing which ecosystems act as long-
term sinks for carbon and which act as
sources for carbon dioxide in the
The complex cycle of carbon and the
varying sizes of carbon reservoirs illustrate
some of the reasons it has been so difficult
to predict the effects that increased
atmospheric carbon will have on global
This increase in carbon dioxide directly
increases plant photosynthesis, but the size
of the increase depends on the species and
physiological condition of the plant.
Furthermore, if increasing levels of
atmospheric carbon dioxide result in
climatic changes, including increased
global temperatures as some meteorologists
predict, these changes will affect
photosynthesis rates.
Carbon, the key element of all life on earth,
has a complicated biogeochemical cycle of
great importance to global climate change.
It is necessary to understand the
environmental significance of this cycle for
protecting the globe for sustenance of all
life on earth.

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