Energy 2.0

The Carbon Cycle

Posted on: May 23, 2008

Carbon is constantly entering the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases. At the same time, it is being removed by green plants, the oceans, and in other ways. This is the carbon cycle. The balance in the cycle is critical in determining the Earth’s climate.

Carbon atoms are continuously being exchanged between living and dead organisms, the atmosphere, oceans, rocks, and soil. With every outward breath, we release CO2 from our lungs into the atmosphere, containing atoms of carbon from plants and animals that we have eaten. Atoms of carbon in our bodies today might previously have been in many different plants and animals – perhaps including dinosaurs and other extinct creatures.

Carbon Cycle

The distribution of carbon among atmosphere, organisms, land, and oceans has changed over time. About 550 million years ago the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 7,000 parts per million – more than 18 times what it is today. Where did all that atmospheric carbon go? For the most part it ended up as sedimentary rocks such as limestone. How that happened is part of the larger story of the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle is a combination of many biological, chemical, and physical processes that move carbon around.

Carbon Dioxide Sinks and Sources

A carbon dioxide sink is something that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. For example, green plants consume CO2 during the process of photosynthesis. Burning wood and fossil fuels are sources of CO2. The oceans are both a source of CO2 and a CO2 sink. This is because CO2 in air that is in contact with the surface of the ocean dissolves in water and is therefore removed from the atmosphere. At the same time, dissolved CO2 is released into the atmosphere. The balance between these two processes depends on many factors and is changeable over time. Presently there is more CO2 dissolving into the oceans than is being released. This means that right now the oceans are a CO2 sink.

Most of the carbon on Earth is in compounds found in sediments and sedimentary rocks. Comparatively little is in the atmosphere.




Billion Metric Tons



Underwater sediments and sedimentary rocks




Ocean water, shells, and organisms




Fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal)




Organic material in soil








Land plants




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