The Carbon Cycle and Its Links to Other Major Cycles

Carbon (C) is a chemical element found in group 14 in the periodic table. It is abundant on Earth and exists in more than 1 million compounds—including diamonds, gas, coal, rocks, shells, and many other things. In fact, all of the living matter on Earth is composed of carbon—all plants, animals, and humans. Carbon is a critical building block of life. This is why archaeologists and paleontologists use carbon in dating techniques when they are trying to determine the age of a very old object—a technique called radiocarbon dating, or C-14 dating.

When anything containing carbon is burned, the carbon reacts chemically with oxygen (O) in the air and creates a gas called carbon dioxide (CO2), which is released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the most common greenhouse gases and is a major contributor to global warming. It also remains in the atmosphere for a long time. Thus, the CO2 that is causing global warming today was released into the atmosphere decades ago. At the same time, the CO2 that humans are emitting today will still be affecting generations long in the future, which is why cutting back on CO2 should be important to everyone. The good news is that scientists have done research toward identifying the sources of CO2 emissions, and there now exist technologies that are able to lower these emissions. This chapter examines the natural carbon cycle and how humans are changing it, the hydrologic cycle and the impact global warming is having on it, and how major cycles and systems on Earth are balanced.

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