Carbon (C), the fourth most abundant element in the Universe, after hydrogen (H), helium (He), and oxygen (O), is the building block of life. It’s the element that anchors all organic substances, from fossil fuels to DNA. On Earth, carbon cycles through the land, ocean, atmosphere, and the Earth’s interior in a major biogeochemical cycle (the circulation of chemical components through the biosphere from or to the lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere). The global carbon cycle can be divided into two categories: the geological, which operates over large time scales (millions of years), and the biological/physical, which operates at shorter time scales (days to thousands of years).
Geological Carbon Cycle
Billions of years ago, as planetesimals (small bodies that formed from the solar nebula) and carbon-containing meteorites bombarded our planet’s surface, the carbon content of the solid Earth steadily increased.
Since those times, carbonic acid (a weak acid derived from the reaction between atmospheric carbon dioxide [CO2] and water) has slowly but continuously combined with calcium and magnesium in the Earth’s crust to form insoluble carbonates (carbon-containing chemical compounds) through a process called weathering. Then, through the process of erosion, the carbonates are washed into the ocean and eventually settle to the bottom. The cycle continues as these materials are drawn into Earth’s mantle by subduction (a process in which one lithospheric plate descends beneath another, often as a result of folding or faulting) at the edges of continental plates. The carbon is then returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide during volcanic eruptions.
The balance between weathering, subduction, and volcanism controls atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over time periods of hundreds of millions of years. The oldest geologic sediments suggest that, before life evolved, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide may have been one-hundred times that of the present, providing a substantial greenhouse effect during a time of low solar output. On the other hand, ice core samples taken in Antarctica and Greenland have led scientists to hypothesize that carbon dioxide concentrations during the last ice age (20,000 years ago) were only half of what they are today.