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Carbon Cycle Process Essay Rubric

Nitrogen and Phosphorus

The climate effects of an altered nitrogen cycle are substantial and complex.1,33,45,3,2 Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide contribute most of the human-caused increase in climate forcing, and the nitrogen cycle affects atmospheric concentrations of all three gases. Nitrogen cycling processes regulate ozone (O3) concentrations in the troposphere and stratosphere, and produce atmospheric aerosols, all of which have additional direct effects on climate. Excess reactive nitrogen also has multiple indirect effects that simultaneously amplify and mitigate changes in climate. Changes in ozone and organic aerosols are short-lived, whereas changes in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide have persistent impacts on the atmosphere.


The strongest direct effect of an altered nitrogen cycle is through emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a long-lived and potent greenhouse gas that is increasing steadily in the atmosphere.35,34 Globally, agriculture has accounted for most of the atmospheric rise in N2O.46,36 Roughly 60% of agricultural N2O derives from elevated soil emissions resulting from the use of nitrogen fertilizer. Animal waste treatment accounts for about 30%, and the remaining 10% comes from crop-residue burning.47 The U.S. reflects this global trend: around 75% to 80% of U.S. human-caused N2O emissions are due to agricultural activities, with the majority being emissions from fertilized soil. The remaining 20% is derived from a variety of industrial and energy sectors.48,10 While N2O currently accounts for about 6% of human-caused warming,34 its long lifetime in the atmosphere and rising concentrations will increase N2O-based climate forcing over a 100-year time scale.36,37,38,39

Excess reactive nitrogen indirectly exacerbates changes in climate by several mechanisms. Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) increase the production of tropospheric ozone, which is a greenhouse gas.49 Elevated tropospheric ozone may reduce CO2 uptake by plants and thereby reduce the terrestrial CO2 sink.50,51 Nitrogen deposition to ecosystems can also stimulate the release of nitrous oxide and methane and decrease methane uptake by soil microbes.52

However, excess reactive nitrogen also mitigates changes in greenhouse gas concentrations and climate through several intersecting pathways. Over short time scales, NOx and ammonia emissions lead to the formation of atmospheric aerosols, which cool the climate by scattering or absorbing incoming radiation and by affecting cloud cover.34,53 In addition, the presence of NOx in the lower atmosphere increases the formation of sulfate and organic aerosols.54 At longer time scales, NOx can increase rates of methane oxidation, thereby reducing the lifetime of this important greenhouse gas.

One of the dominant effects of reactive nitrogen on climate stems from how it interacts with ecosystem carbon capture and storage, and thus, the carbon sink. As mentioned previously, addition of reactive nitrogen to natural ecosystems can increase carbon storage as long as other factors are not limiting plant growth, such as water and nutrient availability.30 Nitrogen deposition from human sources is estimated to contribute to a global net carbon sink in land ecosystems of 917 to 1,830 million metric tons (1,010 to 2,020 million tons) of CO2 per year. These are model-based estimates, as comprehensive, observationally-based estimates at large spatial scales are hindered by the limited number of field experiments. This net land sink represents two components: 1) an increase in vegetation growth as nitrogen limitation is alleviated by human-caused nitrogen deposition, and 2) a contribution from the influence of increased reactive nitrogen availability on decomposition. While the former generally increases with increased reactive nitrogen, the net effect on decomposition in soils is not clear. The net effect on total ecosystem carbon storage was an average of 37 metric tons (41 tons) of carbon stored per metric ton of nitrogen added in forests in the U.S. and Europe. 31

When all direct and indirect links between reactive nitrogen and climate in the U.S. are added up, a recent estimate suggests a modest reduction in the rate of warming in the near term (next several decades), but a progressive switch to greater net warming over a 100-year timescale.33,45 That switch is due to a reduction in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which provide modest cooling effects, a reduction in the nitrogen-stimulated CO2 storage in forests, and a rising importance of agricultural nitrous oxide emissions. Current policies tend to reinforce this switch. For example, policies that reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions have large public health benefits, but also reduce the indirect climate mitigation co-benefits by reducing carbon storage and aerosol formation.

Changes in the phosphorus cycle have no direct effects on climate, but phosphorus availability constrains plant and microbial activity in a wide variety of land- and water-based ecosystems.14,11 Changes in phosphorus availability due to human activity can therefore have indirect impacts on climate and the emissions of greenhouse gases in a variety of ways. For example, in land-based ecosystems, phosphorus availability can limit both CO2 storage and decomposition14,32 as well as the rate of nitrogen accumulation.55 In turn, higher nitrogen inputs can alter phosphorus cycling via changes in the production and activity of enzymes that release phosphorus from decaying organic matter,56,57 creating another mechanism by which rising nitrogen inputs can stimulate carbon uptake.

For the thermonuclear reaction involving carbon that powers some stars, see CNO cycle. For organic chemical ring-shaped structures, see Cyclic compounds.

The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere of the Earth. Carbon is the main component of biological compounds as well as a major component of many minerals such as limestone. Along with the nitrogen cycle and the water cycle, the carbon cycle comprises a sequence of events that are key to make Earth capable of sustaining life. It describes the movement of carbon as it is recycled and reused throughout the biosphere, as well as long-term processes of carbon sequestration to and release from carbon sinks.

The carbon cycle was initially discovered by Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, and popularized by Humphry Davy.[1]

Main components[edit]

PoolQuantity (gigatons)
Oceans (total)38,400
Total inorganic37,400
Total organic1,000
Surface layer670
Deep layer36,730
Sedimentary carbonates> 60,000,000
Terrestrial biosphere (total)2,000
Living biomass600 - 1,000
Dead biomass1,200
Aquatic biosphere1 - 2
Fossil fuels (total)4,130
Other (peat)250

The global carbon cycle is now usually divided into the following major reservoirs of carbon interconnected by pathways of exchange[citation needed]:

The carbon exchanges between reservoirs occur as the result of various chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes. The ocean contains the largest active pool of carbon near the surface of the Earth.[2] The natural flows of carbon between the atmosphere, ocean, terrestrial ecosystems, and sediments is fairly balanced, so that carbon levels would be roughly stable without human influence.[3][4]


Main article: Atmospheric carbon cycle

Carbon in the Earth's atmosphere exists in two main forms: carbon dioxide and methane. Both of these gases absorb and retain heat in the atmosphere and are partially responsible for the greenhouse effect.[2] Methane produces a larger greenhouse effect per volume as compared to carbon dioxide, but it exists in much lower concentrations and is more short-lived than carbon dioxide, making carbon dioxide the more important greenhouse gas of the two.[5]

Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere primarily through photosynthesis and enters the terrestrial and oceanic biospheres. Carbon dioxide also dissolves directly from the atmosphere into bodies of water (oceans, lakes, etc.), as well as dissolving in precipitation as raindrops fall through the atmosphere. When dissolved in water, carbon dioxide reacts with water molecules and forms carbonic acid, which contributes to ocean acidity. It can then be absorbed by rocks through weathering. It also can acidify other surfaces it touches or be washed into the ocean.[6]

Human activities over the past two centuries have significantly increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide, both by modifying ecosystems' ability to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and by emitting it directly, e.g., by burning fossil fuels and manufacturing concrete.[2]

Terrestrial biosphere[edit]

Main article: Terrestrial biological carbon cycle

See also: Soil carbon

See also: Carbon sink

The terrestrial biosphere includes the organic carbon in all land-living organisms, both alive and dead, as well as carbon stored in soils. About 500 gigatons of carbon are stored above ground in plants and other living organisms,[3] while soil holds approximately 1,500 gigatons of carbon.[7] Most carbon in the terrestrial biosphere is organic carbon,[8] while about a third of soil carbon is stored in inorganic forms, such as calcium carbonate.[9] Organic carbon is a major component of all organisms living on earth. Autotrophs extract it from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, converting it into organic carbon, while heterotrophs receive carbon by consuming other organisms.

Because carbon uptake in the terrestrial biosphere is dependent on biotic factors, it follows a diurnal and seasonal cycle. In CO2 measurements, this feature is apparent in the Keeling curve. It is strongest in the northern hemisphere, because this hemisphere has more land mass than the southern hemisphere and thus more room for ecosystems to absorb and emit carbon.

Carbon leaves the terrestrial biosphere in several ways and on different time scales. The combustion or respiration of organic carbon releases it rapidly into the atmosphere. It can also be exported into the oceans through rivers or remain sequestered in soils in the form of inert carbon. Carbon stored in soil can remain there for up to thousands of years before being washed into rivers by erosion or released into the atmosphere through soil respiration. Between 1989 and 2008 soil respiration increased by about 0.1% per year.[10] In 2008, the global total of CO2 released from the soil reached roughly 98 billion tonnes, about 10 times more carbon than humans are now putting into the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuel. There are a few plausible explanations for this trend, but the most likely explanation is that increasing temperatures have increased rates of decomposition of soil organic matter, which has increased the flow of CO2. The length of carbon sequestering in soil is dependent on local climatic conditions and thus changes in the course of climate change. From pre-industrial era to 2010, the terrestrial biosphere represented a net source of atmospheric CO2 prior to 1940, switching subsequently to a net sink.[11]


Main article: Oceanic carbon cycle

Oceans contain the greatest quantity of actively cycled carbon in this world and are second only to the lithosphere in the amount of carbon they store.[2] The oceans' surface layer holds large amounts of dissolved inorganic carbon that is exchanged rapidly with the atmosphere. The deep layer's concentration of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) is about 15% higher than that of the surface layer.[12] DIC is stored in the deep layer for much longer periods of time.[3]Thermohaline circulation exchanges carbon between these two layers.[2]

Carbon enters the ocean mainly through the dissolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is converted into carbonate. It can also enter the oceans through rivers as dissolved organic carbon. It is converted by organisms into organic carbon through photosynthesis and can either be exchanged throughout the food chain or precipitated into the ocean's deeper, more carbon rich layers as dead soft tissue or in shells as calcium carbonate. It circulates in this layer for long periods of time before either being deposited as sediment or, eventually, returned to the surface waters through thermohaline circulation.[3]

Oceanic absorption of CO2 is one of the most important forms of carbon sequestering limiting the human-caused rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, this process is limited by a number of factors. Because the rate of CO2 dissolution in the ocean is dependent on the weathering of rocks and this process takes place slower than current rates of human greenhouse gas emissions, ocean CO2 uptake will decrease in the future.[2] CO2 absorption also makes water more acidic, which affects ocean biosystems. The projected rate of increasing oceanic acidity could slow the biological precipitation of calcium carbonates, thus decreasing the ocean's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.[13][14]

Earth's interior[edit]

The geologic component of the carbon cycle operates slowly in comparison to the other parts of the global carbon cycle. It is one of the most important determinants of the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and thus of global temperatures.[15]

Most of the earth's carbon is stored inertly in the earth's lithosphere.[2] Much of the carbon stored in the earth's mantle was stored there when the earth formed.[16] Some of it was deposited in the form of organic carbon from the biosphere.[17] Of the carbon stored in the geosphere, about 80% is limestone and its derivatives, which form from the sedimentation of calcium carbonate stored in the shells of marine organisms. The remaining 20% is stored as kerogens formed through the sedimentation and burial of terrestrial organisms under high heat and pressure. Organic carbon stored in the geosphere can remain there for millions of years.[15]

Carbon can leave the geosphere in several ways. Carbon dioxide is released during the metamorphosis of carbonate rocks when they are subducted into the earth's mantle. This carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere and ocean through volcanoes and hotspots.[16] It can also be removed by humans through the direct extraction of kerogens in the form of fossil fuels. After extraction, fossil fuels are burned to release energy, thus emitting the carbon they store into the atmosphere.

Human influence[edit]

Main article: Global warming

Since the industrial revolution, human activity has modified the carbon cycle by changing its components' functions and directly adding carbon to the atmosphere.[2]

The largest human impact on the carbon cycle is through direct emissions from burning fossil fuels, which transfers carbon from the geosphere into the atmosphere. The rest of this increase is caused mostly by changes in land-use, particularly deforestation.

Another direct human impact on the carbon cycle is the chemical process of calcination of limestone for clinker production, which releases CO2.[22] Clinker is an industrial precursor of cement.

Humans also influence the carbon cycle indirectly by changing the terrestrial and oceanic biosphere.[23] Over the past several centuries, direct and indirect human-caused land use and land cover change (LUCC) has led to the loss of biodiversity, which lowers ecosystems' resilience to environmental stresses and decreases their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. More directly, it often leads to the release of carbon from terrestrial ecosystems into the atmosphere. Deforestation for agricultural purposes removes forests, which hold large amounts of carbon, and replaces them, generally with agricultural or urban areas. Both of these replacement land cover types store comparatively small amounts of carbon, so that the net product of the process is that more carbon stays in the atmosphere.

Other human-caused changes to the environment change ecosystems' productivity and their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Air pollution, for example, damages plants and soils, while many agricultural and land use practices lead to higher erosion rates, washing carbon out of soils and decreasing plant productivity.

Humans also affect the oceanic carbon cycle.[23] Current trends in climate change lead to higher ocean temperatures, thus modifying ecosystems[24][25][26]. Also, acid rain and polluted runoff from agriculture and industry change the ocean's chemical composition. Such changes can have dramatic effects on highly sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs[27][28][29], thus limiting the ocean's ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere on a regional scale and reducing oceanic biodiversity globally.

Arctic methane emissions indirectly caused by anthropogenic global warming also affect the carbon cycle, and contribute to further warming in what is known as climate change feedback.

On 12 November 2015, NASA scientists reported that human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) continues to increase above levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years: currently, about half of the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels remains in the atmosphere and is not absorbed by vegetation and the oceans.[18][19][20][21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Holmes, Richard (2008). "The Age Of Wonder", Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-0-375-42222-5.
  2. ^ abcdefghiFalkowski, P.; Scholes, R. J.; Boyle, E.; Canadell, J.; Canfield, D.; Elser, J.; Gruber, N.; Hibbard, K.; Högberg, P.; Linder, S.; MacKenzie, F. T.; Moore b, 3.; Pedersen, T.; Rosenthal, Y.; Seitzinger, S.; Smetacek, V.; Steffen, W. (2000). "The Global Carbon Cycle: A Test of Our Knowledge of Earth as a System". Science. 290 (5490): 291–296. Bibcode:2000Sci...290..291F. doi:10.1126/science.290.5490.291. PMID 11030643. 
  3. ^ abcdePrentice, I.C. (2001). "The carbon cycle and atmospheric carbon dioxide". Climate change 2001: the scientific basis: contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change / Houghton, J.T. [edit.] Retrieved 31 May 2012. 
  4. ^"An Introduction to the Global Carbon Cycle"(PDF). University of New Hampshire. 2009. Retrieved 6 February 2016. 
  5. ^Forster, P.; Ramawamy, V.; Artaxo, P.; Berntsen, T.; Betts, R.; Fahey, D.W.; Haywood, J.; Lean, J.; Lowe, D.C.; Myhre, G.; Nganga, J.; Prinn, R.; Raga, G.; Schulz, M.; Van Dorland, R. (2007). "Changes in atmospheric constituents and in radiative forcing". Climate Change 2007: the Physical Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 
  6. ^"Many Planets, One Earth // Section 4: Carbon Cycling and Earth's Climate". Many Planets, One Earth. 4. Retrieved 2012-06-24. 
  7. ^Rice, Charles W. Carbon in Soil: Why and How?[permanent dead link] Geotimes (January 2002). American Geological Institute
  8. ^Yousaf, Balal; Liu, Guijian; Wang, Ruwei; Abbas, Qumber; Imtiaz, Muhammad; Liu, Ruijia (2016). "Investigating the biochar effects on C-mineralization and sequestration of carbon in soil compared with conventional amendments using the stable isotope (δ13C) approach". GCB Bioenergy. doi:10.1111/gcbb.12401. 
  9. ^Lal, Rattan (2008). "Sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in global carbon pools". Energy and Environmental Science. 1: 86–100. doi:10.1039/b809492f. 
  10. ^Bond-Lamberty, B. & Thomson, A.[1] Nature 464, 579-582 (2010)
  11. ^Huang, Junling and McElroy, Michael B. (2012). "The Contemporary and Historical Budget of Atmospheric CO2"(PDF). Canadian Journal of Physics. 90 (8): 707–716. Bibcode:2012CaJPh..90..707H. doi:10.1139/p2012-033. 
  12. ^Sarmiento, J.L.; Gruber, N. (2006). Ocean Biogeochemical Dynamics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA. 
  13. ^Kleypas, J. A.; Buddemeier, R. W.; Archer, D.; Gattuso, J. P.; Langdon, C.; Opdyke, B. N. (1999). "Geochemical Consequences of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Coral Reefs". Science. 284 (5411): 118–120. Bibcode:1999Sci...284..118K. doi:10.1126/science.284.5411.118. PMID 10102806. 
  14. ^Langdon, C.; Takahashi, T.; Sweeney, C.; Chipman, D.; Goddard, J.; Marubini, F.; Aceves, H.; Barnett, H.; Atkinson, M. J. (2000). "Effect of calcium carbonate saturation state on the calcification rate of an experimental coral reef". Global Biogeochemical Cycles. 14 (2): 639. Bibcode:2000GBioC..14..639L. doi:10.1029/1999GB001195. 
  15. ^ abNASA. "The Slow Carbon Cycle". Retrieved 2012-06-24. 
  16. ^ abThe Carbon Cycle and Earth's Climate Information sheet for Columbia University Summer Session 2012 Earth and Environmental Sciences Introduction to Earth Sciences I
  17. ^A New Look at the Long-term Carbon Cycle[permanent dead link]Vol. 9, No. 11 November 1999 GSA TODAY A Publication of the Geological Society of America
  18. ^ abBuis, Alan; Ramsayer, Kate; Rasmussen, Carol (12 November 2015). "A Breathing Planet, Off Balance". NASA. Retrieved 13 November 2015. 
  19. ^ abStaff (12 November 2015). "Audio (66:01) - NASA News Conference - Carbon & Climate Telecon". NASA. Retrieved 12 November 2015. 
  20. ^ abSt. Fleur, Nicholas (10 November 2015). "Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Levels Hit Record, Report Says". New York Times. Retrieved 11 November 2015. 
  21. ^ abRitter, Karl (9 November 2015). "UK: In 1st, global temps average could be 1 degree C higher". AP News. Retrieved 11 November 2015. 
  22. ^IPCC (2007) 7.4.5 Minerals in Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change,
  23. ^ abMorse, John W.; Mackenzie, Fred T., eds. (1990-01-01). Developments in Sedimentology. Geochemistry of Sedimentary Carbonates. 48. Elsevier. pp. 447–510. 
  24. ^Laws, Edward A.; Falkowski, Paul G.; Smith, Walker O.; Ducklow, Hugh; McCarthy, James J. (2000-12-01). "Temperature effects on export production in the open ocean". Global Biogeochemical Cycles. 14 (4): 1231–1246. doi:10.1029/1999GB001229. ISSN 1944-9224. 
  25. ^Takahashi, Taro; Sutherland, Stewart C.; Sweeney, Colm; Poisson, Alain; Metzl, Nicolas; Tilbrook, Bronte; Bates, Nicolas; Wanninkhof, Rik; Feely, Richard A. (2002-01-01). "Global sea–air CO2 flux based on climatological surface ocean pCO2, and seasonal biological and temperature effects". Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography. The Southern Ocean I: Climatic Changes in the Cycle of Carbon in the Southern Ocean. 49 (9): 1601–1622. doi:10.1016/S0967-0645(02)00003-6. 
  26. ^Sanford, Eric (1999-03-26). "Regulation of Keystone Predation by Small Changes in Ocean Temperature". Science. 283 (5410): 2095–2097. doi:10.1126/science.283.5410.2095. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 10092235. 
  27. ^Kleypas, Joan A.; Buddemeier, Robert W.; Archer, David; Gattuso, Jean-Pierre; Langdon, Chris; Opdyke, Bradley N. (1999-04-02). "Geochemical Consequences of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Coral Reefs". Science. 284 (5411): 118–120. doi:10.1126/science.284.5411.118. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 10102806. 
  28. ^Hughes, T. P.; Baird, A. H.; Bellwood, D. R.; Card, M.; Connolly, S. R.; Folke, C.; Grosberg, R.; Hoegh-Guldberg, O.; Jackson, J. B. C. (2003-08-15). "Climate Change, Human Impacts, and the Resilience of Coral Reefs". Science. 301 (5635): 929–933. doi:10.1126/science.1085046. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 12920289. 
  29. ^Orr, James C.; Fabry, Victoria J.; Aumont, Olivier; Bopp, Laurent; Doney, Scott C.; Feely, Richard A.; Gnanadesikan, Anand; Gruber, Nicolas; Ishida, Akio (2005-09-29). "Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms". Nature. 437 (7059): 681–686. doi:10.1038/nature04095. ISSN 0028-0836. 

Further reading[edit]

  • The Carbon Cycle, updated primer by NASA Earth Observatory, 2011
  • Appenzeller, Tim (2004). "The case of the missing carbon". National Geographic Magazine.  – article about the missing carbon sink
  • Bolin, Bert; Degens, E. T.; Kempe, S.; Ketner, P. (1979). The global carbon cycle. Chichester ; New York: Published on behalf of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) by Wiley. ISBN 0-471-99710-2. Archived from the original on 2002-10-28. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  • Houghton, R. A. (2005). "The contemporary carbon cycle". In William H Schlesinger (editor). Biogeochemistry. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science. pp. 473–513. ISBN 0-08-044642-6. 
  • Janzen, H. H. (2004). "Carbon cycling in earth systems—a soil science perspective". Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 104 (3): 399–417. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2004.01.040. 
  • Millero, Frank J. (2005). Chemical Oceanography (3 ed.). CRC Press. ISBN 0-8493-2280-4. 
  • Sundquist, Eric; Broecker, Wallace S., eds. (1985). The Carbon Cycle and Atmospheric CO2: Natural variations Archean to Present. Geophysical Monographs Series. American Geophysical Union. 

External links[edit]

This diagram of the fast carbon cycle shows the movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and oceans in billions of tons per year. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, red are human contributions, white indicate stored carbon. Note this diagram does not account for volcanic and tectonic activity, which also sequesters and releases carbon.
Epiphytes on electric wires. This kind of plant takes both CO2 and water from the atmosphere for living and growing.
A portable soil respiration system measuring soil CO2 flux
Human activity since the industrial era has changed the balance in the natural carbon cycle. Units are in gigatons.[3]

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