METEO 3
Introductory Meteorology

The Carbon Cycle

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After completing this section, you should be able to discuss Earth's carbon cycle, including the primary reservoirs and anthropogenic transfer mechanisms. You need not remember specific transfer rates or reservoir "sizes", but you should be able to identify the largest reservoirs and transfer mechanisms, as well as describe the consequences of the unbalanced, anthropogenic portions of the carbon cycle.

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Concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide are increasing, largely because of the burning of fossil fuels. But, are trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations that straightforward? If you refer to the data from the Mauna Loa Observatory, you can see that there's a clear increase since the late 1950s, but there's also a yearly cycle that's apparent (note the regular ups and downs in the red trace). Carbon dioxide concentrations vary throughout the year because of plant photosynthesis. During warmer months, when plants are more actively growing, the process of photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide, which removes it from the air. During colder months, with less plant growth, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase again because less is being consumed by photosynthesis.

So, not all carbon dioxide that human activities have added to the atmosphere stays in the atmosphere (and not all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from anthropogenic sources). As it turns out, Earth has a carbon cycle, which contains several carbon "reservoirs" (places that retain carbon), and carbon continuously gets exchanged between the earth and the atmosphere. But, the carbon cycle deals with more than just anthropogenic emissions and plant growth.

For starters, the earth-atmosphere system has a "carbon budget" of sorts, which ideally, would be approximately balanced (exchanges of carbon between the earth and atmosphere would be equal). Historically, we know that the cycle hasn't been perfectly balanced at all times, because concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide have varied (historical concentrations have ups and downs). Still, over the long haul, the "ups" have been offset by the "downs" because of the earth-atmosphere system always seeking to balance the cycle. But, since the dawn of the industrial age, that balance has changed.

The primary reservoirs of carbon dioxide are the oceans, the terrestrial surface (primarily in plants and soil), and geological reserves of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is a carbon reservoir, too, but as you can see from the schematic of the carbon cycle below, the atmosphere contains a tiny fraction of the carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) compared to the oceans and geological reserves.

Schematic of earth's carbon cycle
The main reservoirs of carbon (in boxes) are the ocean (the largest), geologic reserves of fossil fuels, the terrestrial surface (mainly plants and soil) and the atmosphere. Estimates of reservoir sizes are expressed in trillions of kilograms of carbon. Exchanges of carbon between the atmosphere and ocean are denoted by purple arrows and are expressed in trillions of kilograms of carbon per year.
Credit: David Babb

The oceans are, by far, the largest reservoir of carbon, followed by geological reserves of fossil fuels, the terrestrial surface (plans and soil), and the atmosphere. But, carbon moves naturally between the earth and atmosphere continuously. For example, volcanoes and other geologic activity emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. On the other hand, the weathering of some rocks results in chemical reactions with atmospheric carbon dioxide that removes it from the atmosphere. Plant photosynthesis also removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returns it to the terrestrial surface. Note in the diagram above that the natural exchanges (marked by purple arrows) between the atmosphere, ocean, and terrestrial surface are balanced (emissions into the atmosphere are balanced by transfer back to the ocean and terrestrial surface).

Geological reserves were largely left out of the cycle until industrialization resulted in the large-scale recovery and burning of carbon-based fossil fuels, which creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct. The transfer of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is actually much smaller than that which naturally occurs from the ocean and terrestrial surface, but it's an unbalanced part of the cycle.

Deforestation also adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, because wood is roughly 50 percent carbon. So, when forests are cleared, much of that carbon eventually makes its way into the atmosphere. This process is exacerbated when deforestation occurs via burning. While the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year from deforestation is somewhat uncertain (that's why a range of 1 to 2 billion kilograms per year is shown in the diagram), deforestation on a global scale may be responsible for more than a quarter of anthropogenic emissions, and it's also an unbalanced part of the cycle. So, deforestation has some global climate impacts, too, in addition to the local ones we discussed previously.

The important thing to take away from this discussion is that the anthropogenic transfers of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (via fossil fuels and deforestation) are unbalanced parts of the cycle. No mechanisms perfectly balance them and transfer equal amounts of carbon dioxide back into the oceans and terrestrial surface. So, while the anthropogenic additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere are small compared to natural ones (refer to the carbon cycle diagram above), since they're unbalanced, the anthropogenic contributions gradually add up over time, which is why carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased more than 40 percent since pre-industrial days, and more than 25 percent just since the late 1950s.

Graph showing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
Since the late 1950s, observations at the Mauna Loa Observatory show the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from an unbalanced carbon budget. Only about half of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere has been removed by natural processes, and as long as more carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere than is being removed, concentrations will continue to increase.
Credit: Earth System Research Laboratory

However, the earth-atmosphere system is very dynamic, and as the earth has warmed and atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased, the rate of natural processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has also increased, which has had the overall effect of removing some anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It turns out that roughly half of the carbon dioxide that humans have emitted into the atmosphere has been returned to the oceans and terrestrial surface by natural processes. In other words, nature is doing its very best to seek balance and offset the increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from human activity. But, these natural removal processes haven't been able to keep up with the rate of anthropogenic emissions, and show no signs of being able to in the future. As long as more carbon dioxide is being emitted into the atmosphere than is being removed, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will continue to increase, just as your bank account balance grows if you deposit more money than you withdraw over a period of time.

Summary

  • Carbon is stored in four main reservoirs -- oceans (the largest reservoir), geological reserves of fossil fuels, the terrestrial surface (plants and soil, mainly), and the atmosphere.
  • Natural processes result in a continuous exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, and terrestrial surface, which ideally is approximately balanced.
  • Fossil fuel use and deforestation represent unbalanced additions to atmospheric carbon dioxide. Only about half of anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been removed and returned to oceans and terrestrial surface by natural processes.
  • As long as more carbon dioxide is being emitted into the atmosphere than is being removed, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will continue to increase.

The end result of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) is a strengthening greenhouse effect that gradually warms the planet. But, the observed warming trend since the late 1800s has hardly been as smooth and consistent as the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Up next, we'll take a closer look at the how scientists take Earth's temperature, and dial in on the details of the observed warming trends.