Global Carbon Cycle
The gas carbon dioxide (CO2
), one atom of carbon (C) combined with two atoms of oxygen
), is just one of many chemical forms of carbon on the Earth.
As shown in the diagram, the near-surface environment of the Earth contains approximately 121,000,000
gigatons of carbon (GtC); a gigaton is equivalent to a billion metric tons; the
number means "121 million gigatons or 121 million billion metric tons" of carbon).1,2
The carbon cycle diagram shows how carbon is stored in the environment and how a small amount is
constantly moving between the land, the ocean, and the atmosphere. When carbon is exposed to
the atmosphere, it can combine with oxygen to make CO2
One ton of carbon combining with oxygen makes nearly 4 tons of CO2
Carbon in the environment can be divided into three types based on its availability to the
atmosphere. The three types are carbon that is locked away in permanent storage and is not
available to combine with oxygen and form CO2
in the atmosphere, carbon that is in
relatively long-term storage in the land and the ocean, and carbon that is already in the
atmosphere, mainly as CO2
About 78,000,000 GtC or two-thirds of the near-surface carbon on Earth occurs in nearly permanent
storage in fossil fuels, limestone rocks, or sediments. Most of this carbon was originally in the
atmosphere but has gone into storage underground over millions of years.
Most of the remaining one-third (44,000 GtC or one-third of the total) is in relatively long-term storage
in the ocean and at the surface of the land. In the ocean, this carbon occurs as dissolved
gas, as lime in seashells, and in the organic tissues of small marine creatures (i.e.,
plankton). The deep ocean contains close to 40,000 GtC, while the upper ocean contains only
1000 GtC. About 2000 GtC of carbon is held on the land, where it occurs primarily in plants,
animals, and decaying organic matter.
A small part of the carbon, only 750 GtC, less than 1% of all the near-surface carbon on the
Earth, occurs in the form of a gas in the atmosphere. Most of this carbon is combined with oxygen as
the gas CO2
Each year, about 260 GtC (that is, about one-half of 1% of the carbon in relatively long-term storage)
moves from the land and ocean to the atmosphere, and a nearly equal amount moves from the atmosphere
into temporary storage in the ocean and the land.
This cycle has been relatively constant, but there have been times in the past when CO2
levels in the atmosphere have been relatively high. There have also been periods when the amount of
in the atmosphere has been relatively low. Learn more at Climate Change
The carbon locked in the Earth’s crust as sedimentary rocks and fossil fuels is basically in permanent
storage. The carbon was locked away mainly through natural processes whereby plants and animals
to organic and inorganic compounds or through the preservation of plant and
animal remains. This volume of carbon is "unavailable" to the atmosphere and is not part of
the everyday carbon cycle. However, human actions can release this stored carbon back into the
atmosphere and add it to the active carbon cycle. Stored carbon could be added into the active
carbon cycle through human actions like plowing farmland, making lime from limestone, or burning
fossil fuels like coal, oil, or natural gas.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have added carbon to the Earth's carbon cycle
by their increasing use of fossil fuels, expanding agriculture, and use of other natural resources. Over
the past 150 years, the amount of carbon from the human (anthropogenic) CO2
emissions from the use of fossil fuels
has grown from a few million tons a year to over 9 GtC a year (learn more at
CO2 from Human Action
Altogether, humans have released over 300 billion tons of carbon once stored in the Earth to the
atmosphere as CO2
over the past 150 years. It has been suggested that half of this
carbon has been absorbed by the land and the ocean and that the other half has remained in the
atmosphere, increasing the level of CO2
Currently, the level of carbon as
in the atmosphere is relatively high and is significantly higher
than it was 150 years ago (learn more at Climate
www.noaa.org (accessed Fall 2005).
- GtC = gigatons of carbon; 1 gigaton equals 1 billion or 1,000,000,000 metric tons (a metric ton is 1000 kilograms); 1 metric ton = 2204.6 pounds (an English system ton is 2000 pounds).
- Based on the ratio of the weights of the atoms of carbon and oxygen, 1 ton of carbon would combine with 2.667 tons of oxygen to form 3.667 tons of CO2.
- Accessed from Hadley Centre in fall 2005.
- www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggccebro/chapter1.html (accessed November 2004)