Carbon Cycle and Climate Change: Understanding the Relationship


Climate change has been a hot topic for a good number of years. Everything from global warming to the deforestation of our rainforests has driven many eco-groups, scientists, and politicians into looking for solutions on how to reverse some of the damages that have occurred through the years.

Having a limited understanding as to what causes climate change, in general, have led many people to assume that this concept is a myth, a way to mislead the people. However, many scientific claims have made it apparent that our impact on this earth is a negative one.

What causes global warming and climate change and what is the carbon cycle’s role in climate change? This article will answer this and provide more information on how you can change your carbon footprint.


What Is The Carbon Cycle?

It may come as a surprise that the carbon cycle itself is a natural process that plants and other carbon lifeforms go through while they go through the process of growth and decay. The best definition for the carbon cycle comes from dictonary.com where it states that a carbon cycle is “the series of processes by which carbon compounds are interconverted in the environment.”

What this tells us is that you can have carbon from dead leaves, exhaling or through burning things like fossil fuels. While the carbon cycle is a natural process that occurs, humans have increased the amount of carbon output by 40 percent since industrial ages through deforestation and the mass production of fuel burning sources.


The Carbon Cycle Is Out Of Balance 

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Fossil fuels are one of the leading causes of the significant growth of CO2 in our atmosphere. While industrial processing and natural gas flaring are also responsible for the added CO2 but fossil fuels are the most significant contributor.

Many people recognize that fossil fuels are a problem, but a bigger problem than that is the fact that human transportation relies heavily on the use of fossil fuels and that creates a resistance to get rid of it. Not only that, fossil fuels are responsible for providing heating and cooling, electricity and other forms of energy use.

Private transportation has caused a rise in emissions and carbon from six and a half pentagrams of carbon per year in 1990 to a three percent increase in the 2000s.

While the rate of growth slowed dramatically around 2012 to 2016, the period between 2007 to 2016 proved to be consistent with some of the most intensive fossil fuel emission projections that got represented in the IPCC AR5 report.  

Emissions that have been rising in developing countries, like China, are a direct result from growing international trades and shifts in developing countries towards service economics. Export production in these countries is an essential factor in the increase of emissions generated.

The future is not bleak though, if humans choose to invest and depend on more renewable sources of energy, then the issue of high carbon emissions will soon disappear, however, if we continue depending on this form of energy, then we will face more climate change issues as the year's progress.


Why Plants Help Balance The Carbon Cycle 

Trees are known as a land sink, which is a term referring to how much carbon gets  absorbed and stores it. Trees are the best at what they do because they are larger natural structures which take in carbon during photosynthesis and store it.

This ability to take on more substantial amounts of carbon helps dramatically offset the impact of greenhouse gasses on the atmosphere.

Soil also stores a large portion of carbon emissions. Up to twenty percent of the yearly carbon output every year is soaked up by the ground and put into plant growth. This plant growth will also utilize the CO2 in the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen.

However, because we have widespread deforestation occurring to the point that the earth cannot regenerate this resource faster than used, CO2 and carbon build up from a lack of a filter. As a result, greenhouse gasses build over time and slowly begin to warm the planet at rates in which are not natural for the world to experience.


Keeling’s Curve and CO2

In 1958, CO2 in the atmosphere was beginning to be measured to identify the impact of CO2 in our atmosphere in Hawaii. While the data collected seemed erratic at first, over time a rhythm began to appear in correlation to the seasons.

Winter would show a build-up of carbon and CO2 and then as summer progressed, CO2 levels would decrease while plants worked on their growth. Now we have network stations that keep track of these patterns. Over time it was noted that as the years progressed, CO2 trends began to rise from its initial 318 parts per million (ppm) to 402 ppm measured in 2014

If these levels continue on the pattern that they’re currently on, we’ll be sitting at over 936 ppm as we hit the year 2100. If we can reduce the use of fossil fuels, we can start changing the course of Keeling’s curve, and we can avoid devastating effects on our atmosphere.


The Ocean's Role 

Many may be surprised to learn that it’s not strictly the atmosphere that holds the most CO2. The ocean plays a large part in the carbon cycle, thanks to the earth being mostly large bodies of water, the sea is responsible for storing up to 85 percent of carbon worldwide.

CO2 will dissolve in seawater. The reaction that follows turns CO2 into several ions that enable oceans to hold large amounts of carbon. Colder areas of the sea can hold more CO2 than warmer waters, so currents traveling to either the north or south pole will absorb more carbon as it goes while coastal waters release carbon more readily.

Algae and other plant life that resides in the ocean take up this carbon and apply it to their growth rates just like plants on land do.

Eventually, a good percentage of this CO2 will be recycled back into CO2 thanks to the food web near the surface of the water, but a small portion of the waste matter will sink to the deeper areas in the ocean where it will provide nutrition to deep dwellers.

This process keeps that CO2 from returning to the surface and filling the atmosphere once again. Overall, this process takes the ocean about 1000 years to mix thoroughly. With global warming taking effect and the ice caps receding from warming waters, carbon will release from these waters faster than before.


Ocean Acidification

One of the side effects of the ocean taking on so much CO2 is the fact that it turns into carbonic acid once it dissolves into the seawater. As a result, the sea slowly becomes more acidic which can have a massive impact on all forms of marine life.

Since before the industrial revolution took the world by storm to present times, the ocean has seen a 0.1 drop in pH. While this doesn’t seem like a significant amount of change, even the slightest variance in pH levels can negatively affect coral and more sensitive species of fish, especially in the Southern Ocean.

Invertebrates are also in danger of the acidification of the ocean’s waters. The species that are the most susceptible to these condition changes are creatures like:

  • Coral
  • Oysters
  • Mussels
  • Clams
  • Snails
  • Phytoplankton and
  • Zooplankton.

The acidity in the water has a negative impact on their shells and skeletons and may dissolve easier thanks to the acid water conditions. In addition to losing the density of their shells, CO2 dissolving in the water creates chemistry changes that generate fewer carbonate ions which are directly responsible for being the primary building blocks for shells and skeletons.

As if that wasn’t bad enough,  pH levels are expected to drop farther by 0.3 to 0.4 pH units by the time we hit the year 2100 assuming that everything continues as planned. This amount of change could lead to many marine species to go extinct if nothing is done to stop it.


In The End 

If nothing changes to improve the current imbalance that climate change has brought to the carbon cycle, the world will become a very harsh and inhospitable place sooner than later. It’s no longer a problem that can remain ignored, and steps need to be put into place to reverse the damages that are affecting our environment.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and all of these bleak outlooks can change for the better. The fight starts with you, though. Making changes in your lifestyle choices that could instead benefit the Earth, no matter how small, can cause significant changes along the way.

Many websites can be accessed to learn how you can start making a difference to help the world out. We only have one, and it’s time we started treating it like a proper home. 

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