Why Is the Carbon Cycle Important?

The Exchange of Carbon on Earth

Carbon Cycle
The carbon cycle describes the storage and exchange of carbon between the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. NASA

The carbon cycle describes the way the element carbon moves between the Earth's biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and geosphere. It is important for a few reasons:

  1. Carbon is an essential element for all life, so understanding how it moves helps us to understand biological processes and factors that influence them.
  2. One form carbon takes is the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2. Increased levels of carbon dioxide insulate the Earth, causing temperatures to rise. Understanding how carbon dioxide is absorbed and released helps us understand the climate and predict global warming.
  3. Carbon is not in balance, so it's important to learn where it is being stored and released. The rate at which carbon is deposited into living organisms is not the same as the rate it is returned to the Earth. There is about 100x more carbon in living matter than in the Earth. Burning fossil fuels releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and to the Earth.
  4. The carbon cycle is tied to the availability of other elements and compounds. For example, the carbon cycle is tied to the availability of oxygen in the atmosphere. During photosynthesis, plants take carbon dioxide from the air and used it to make glucose (stored carbon), while releasing oxygen.