The Chatter on Carbon Part 1: The Carbon Cycle By Marie Bouffard, special to ECHO It seems like these days everyone is conc...

Blog Series: The Science of Stewardship


The Chatter on Carbon Part 1: The Carbon Cycle

By Marie Bouffard, special to ECHO

It seems like these days everyone is concerned with carbon, carbon emissions, carbon footprints, being carbon neutral, and so on. ‘But why is carbon such a big deal?’ you might ask, ‘How can something microscopic contribute so much to climate change?’ Here at ECHO we care deeply about taking care of our planet and we also want to learn as much as we can about the science behind everything that goes on in our world. So take a dive with us and find out why carbon is such a big deal and what you can do at home to reduce your carbon footprint!

Carbon is a chemical element but one thing that makes carbon special among all the elements on the periodic table is the fact it is abundant on Earth and, in fact, all known life, from tiny zooplankton, to polar bears, to humans, are carbon-based life forms. This is because carbon is the key chemical component to making life possible here on Earth.

But if carbon is so important to life why is it bad?’ you might wonder. The short answer is, it’s not, in natural moderation at least. You see, just like water, carbon on Earth exists in a cycle. The main reservoirs carbon is found in are as a gas in the atmosphere, as energy in plants and animals, underground as fossil fuels, and even dissolved in the ocean. Carbon is recycled and exchanged between these reservoirs naturally through the Carbon Cycle.

However, over the past hundred years a new and powerful force has entered the scene and begun to alter the Carbon Cycle. That powerful new factor is actually human beings. Since the industrial revolution, humans have been altering the carbon cycle on a much larger scale by emitting carbon that had been stored underground into the atmosphere as gases. Human activities, like burning fossil fuels to power our cars, releases carbon that has been stored in that underground reservoir for millions of years and converts it into Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Methane (CH4) in the atmosphere. The carbon that had been stored for so long joins the gases already in the atmosphere, adding to CO2 concentrations.

At the same time as humans are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere we are also reducing the ability of natural sinks, forests in particular, to remove carbon from the atmosphere and continue the carbon cycle. With so much deforestation there are fewer trees to take up atmospheric carbon, and together with higher emissions, the result is much higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2 than would naturally be present. Unfortunately, these changes from the natural cycle of carbon are having consequences for everyone who calls planet Earth home.

Stay tuned in our blog series The Science of Stewardship for Part 2 of The Chatter on Carbon to learn about what higher levels of atmospheric CO2 means for the planet and how it all connects with Global Climate Change.

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