Carbon Cycle

The term carbon cycle refers to biologists' attempts to locate and quantify the movement of the biologically crucial chemical element carbon, upon whose chemistry living organisms are largely based, as it makes its way in and out of organisms and ecosystems on the earth's surface. The study of the carbon cycle is thus part of a nascent science of what might be called biospherics, the attempts to understand how the chemistry of the biosphere operates and contributes, or hampers, the livelihood and lives of organisms. Somewhat surprisingly, such a science bears a kinship to both climatology and physiology. Over the long run, a rigid distinction between organisms, ecosystems, and the global environment is necessarily blurred, because the cyclical chemistries that maintain the identities of these systems lose their function, and the constituent atoms are returned to the biosphere. Carbon, especially important to organisms because its long, complex chains articulate organic form and function, cycles, as do other biologically important elements, in the equivalent of a global metabolism. One of the greatest indexes of the power of life is the virtual absence of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere: unlike the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, which are mostly carbon dioxide, the carbon in our atmosphere is either actively cycled by Earth's organisms or buried in its surface. The carbon in methane (CH4), carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and other gases and particles—for example, pollen and smoke—make their way into organisms on the ground, such as trees. When these organisms die, the carbon atoms of their bodies are released and reused by other organisms. But the carbon also builds up, as fossil fuels (oil comes from the dead bodies of tropical seashore algae), chalk cliffs, and limestone (calcium carbonate). These are, in a way, the "bones" of the Earth, part of a wider-than-suspected sphere of biological influence. Modern people, by bringing back into circulation long sequestered parts of the bodylike biosphere, change the global metabolism. Thus understanding the carbon cycle is not just an academic exercise but also important to future attempts to describe planetary health and medicine.

—Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan

See also: Climatology; Evolution; Five Kingdoms of Nature; Food Webs and Food Pyramids; Lichens; Microbiology; Nitrogen Cycle; Nutrient/Energy Cycling; Protoctists; Soil; Topsoil Formation

Bibliography

Margulis, Lynn, et al. 2001. "An Introduction to the Carbon Cycle: What Happens to Trash and Garbage?" Rochester, NY: NeoSci Corporation; Sagan, Dorion, and Lynn Margulis. 1993. Garden of Microbial Delights: A Practical Guide to the Subvisible World. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

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