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First, carbonic acid reacts with carbonate ions in the water to form bicarbonate. Above me, in the trees, photosynthesis is occurring, and that process removes CO2 from the atmosphere and converts it to oxygen that we breathe. Likewise, changes in the carbon cycle will impact the way we live. Sellers et al., 1992.). This cycle peaks in August, with about 2 parts per million of carbon dioxide drawn out of the atmosphere. White numbers indicate stored carbon. And you can see a beautiful example of a soil profile right behind me. Phytoplankton (microscopic organisms in the ocean) and plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by absorbing it into their cells. (Graph based on data from Zachos at al., 2001. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are warming the atmosphere. Zachos, J., M. Pagani, L. Sloan, E. Thomas, and K. Billups. This process forms the foundation of the fast (biological) carbon cycle. However, warmer temperatures also stress plants. This diagram of the fast carbon cycle shows the movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and oceans. (Graphs by Robert Simmon, using CO2 data from the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory and temperature data from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.). By far the largest rainforest on Earth, the Amazon is often called the lungs of the planet for its role in replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen. In the fall and winter, as vegetation dies back in the northern hemisphere, decomposition and respiration returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Reservoirs are shown as rectangular blocks; flows between reservoirs are indicated by arrows. The amount of carbon that plants take up varies greatly from year to year, but in general, the world’s plants have increased the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb since 1960. It is as if the Earth is breathing. The rest is caused by small particles (aerosols) and minor greenhouse gases like methane. In the tropics, however, forests are being removed, often through fire, and this releases carbon dioxide. NASA’s role in answering these questions is to provide global satellite observations and related field observations. We perturb the carbon cycle by burning fossil fuels and clearing land. Chemistry regulates this dance between ocean, land, and atmosphere. They will help us gauge the impact we are having on the carbon cycle by releasing carbon into the atmosphere or finding ways to store it elsewhere. All of these measurements will help us see how the global carbon cycle is changing through time. Over the long term, the carbon cycle seems to maintain … Le Quéré, C., Raupach, M.P., Canadell, J.G., Marland, G., et al. (2001, May 24). We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilizations—our economies, our homes, our means of transport—are built on carbon. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Photograph ©2009 stevendepolo.). We tend to replace the dense growth with crops or pasture, which store less carbon. Increases in carbon dioxide are not only leading to warmer oceans, but also to more acidic oceans. NASA Goddard Space In The Global Carbon Cycle, B. Bolin, E.T. The re-emitted energy travels out in all directions, but some returns to Earth, where it heats the surface. Scientists are already seeing evidence that plants in the Northern Hemisphere slow their growth in the summer because of warm temperatures and water shortages. This information is crucial because land use accounts for one-third of all human carbon emissions. (2010, August 5). And, in fact, Earth swings between ice ages and warmer interglacial periods on these time scales. It shows how carbon emissions compare and compete with other human demands on our planet, such as food, fibers, timber, and land for dwellings and roads. Additionally, boreal forests themselves have the ability to impact the global climate through radiation balance and carbon cycling, leading to interconnected feedback loops between climate and forest. As each of us come to understand our role in the carbon cycle, the knowledge empowers us to control our personal impact and to understand the changes we are seeing in the world around us.

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