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46.3C: The Carbon Cycle

  • Page ID
    • Boundless
    • Boundless
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    Learning Objectives
    • Distinguish between the biological and biogeochemical cycles of carbon

    Carbon, the second most abundant element in living organisms, is present in all organic molecules. Its role in the structure of macromolecules is of primary importance to living organisms. Carbon compounds contain especially- high forms of energy, which humans use as fuel. Since the 1800s (the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), the number of countries using massive amounts of fossil fuels increased, which raised the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This increase in carbon dioxide has been associated with climate change and other disturbances of the earth’s ecosystems. It is a major environmental concern worldwide.

    The carbon cycle is most easily studied as two interconnected sub-cycles: one dealing with rapid carbon exchange among living organisms and the other dealing with the long-term cycling of carbon through geologic processes.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Carbon cycle: Carbon dioxide gas exists in the atmosphere and is dissolved in water. Photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide gas to organic carbon, while respiration cycles the organic carbon back into carbon dioxide gas. Long-term storage of organic carbon occurs when matter from living organisms is buried deep underground and becomes fossilized. Volcanic activity and human emissions bring this stored carbon back into the carbon cycle.

    The Biological Carbon Cycle

    Living organisms are connected in many ways, even between ecosystems. A good example of this connection is the exchange of carbon between autotrophs and heterotrophs. Carbon dioxide is the basic building block that most autotrophs use to build multi-carbon, high-energy compounds, such as glucose. The energy harnessed from the sun is used by these organisms to form the covalent bonds that link carbon atoms together. These chemical bonds store this energy for later use in the process of respiration. Most terrestrial autotrophs obtain their carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, while marine autotrophs acquire it in the dissolved form (carbonic acid, H2CO3). However carbon dioxide is acquired, a by-product of the process is oxygen. The photosynthetic organisms are responsible for depositing approximately 21 percent of the oxygen content in the atmosphere that we observe today.

    Heterotrophs acquire the high-energy carbon compounds from the autotrophs by consuming them and breaking them down by respiration to obtain cellular energy, such as ATP. The most efficient type of respiration, aerobic respiration, requires oxygen obtained from the atmosphere or dissolved in water. Thus, there is a constant exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the autotrophs (which need the carbon) and the heterotrophs (which need the oxygen). Gas exchange through the atmosphere and water is one way that the carbon cycle connects all living organisms on Earth.

    The Biogeochemical Carbon Cycle

    The movement of carbon through the land, water, and air is complex and, in many cases, it occurs much more slowly than the biological carbon cycle. Carbon is stored for long periods in what are known as carbon reservoirs, which include the atmosphere, bodies of liquid water (mostly oceans), ocean sediment, soil, land sediments (including fossil fuels), and the earth’s interior.

    As stated, the atmosphere, a major reservoir of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, is essential to the process of photosynthesis. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is greatly influenced by the reservoir of carbon in the oceans. The exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and water reservoirs influences how much carbon is found in each location; each affects the other reciprocally. Carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere dissolves in water, combining with water molecules to form carbonic acid. It then ionizes to carbonate and bicarbonate ions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Formation of bicarbonate: Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form bicarbonate and carbonate ions.

    More than 90 percent of the carbon in the ocean is found as bicarbonate ions. Some of these ions combine with seawater calcium to form calcium carbonate (CaCO3), a major component of marine organism shells. These organisms eventually form sediments on the ocean floor. Over geologic time, the calcium carbonate forms limestone, which comprises the largest carbon reservoir on earth.

    On land, carbon is stored in soil as a result of the decomposition of living organisms or the weathering of terrestrial rock and minerals. This carbon can be leached into the water reservoirs by surface runoff. Deeper underground, on land and at sea, are fossil fuels: the anaerobically-decomposed remains of plants that take millions of years to form. Fossil fuels are considered a non-renewable resource because their use far exceeds their rate of formation. A non-renewable resource is either regenerated very slowly or not at all. Another way for carbon to enter the atmosphere is from land by the eruption of volcanoes and other geothermal systems. Carbon sediments from the ocean floor are taken deep within the earth by the process of subduction: the movement of one tectonic plate beneath another. Carbon is released as carbon dioxide when a volcano erupts or from volcanic hydrothermal vents.

    Carbon dioxide is also added to the atmosphere by the breeding and raising of livestock. The large numbers of land animals raised to feed the earth’s growing population results in increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere due to farming practices, respiration, and methane production. This is another example of how human activity indirectly affects biogeochemical cycles in a significant way. Although much of the debate about the future effects of increasing atmospheric carbon on climate change focuses on fossils fuels, scientists take natural processes, such as volcanoes and respiration, into account as they model and predict the future impact of this increase.

    Key Points

    • Carbon is present in all organic molecules; carbon compounds contain large amounts of energy, which humans use as fuel.
    • The biological carbon cycle is the rapid exchange of carbon among living things; autotrophs use carbon dioxide produced by heterotrophs to produce glucose and oxygen, which are then utilized by heterotrophs.
    • The biogeochemical cycle occurs at a much slower rate than the biological cycle since carbon is stored in carbon reservoirs for long periods of time.
    • Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in water, combining with water molecules to form carbonic acid, which then ionizes to carbonate and bicarbonate ions.
    • Most of the carbon in the ocean is in the form of bicarbonate ions, which can combine with seawater calcium to form calcium carbonate (CaCO3), a major component of marine organism shells.
    • Carbon can enter the soil as a result of the decomposition of living organisms, the weathering of rocks, the eruption of volcanoes, and other geothermal systems.

    Key Terms

    • subduction: movement of one tectonic plate beneath another
    • non-renewable resource: resource, such as fossil fuel, that is either regenerated very slowly or not at all
    • autotroph: Any organism that can synthesize its food from inorganic substances, using heat or light as a source of energy
    • heterotroph: an organism that requires an external supply of energy in the form of food, as it cannot synthesize its own

    This page titled 46.3C: The Carbon Cycle is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Boundless.

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