Carbon Cycle

Carbon is the sixth element. It is in everything living. It is in us and all around us. Carbon is in the four ancient elements- Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. It is in the air we breathe in (O) and in the air we breathe out (CO2). We have carbon in our bones, muscles, DNA, hair, eyes, and skin. Carbon moves as part of a closed system between the inner Earth, rocks, minerals, fossil fuels, and soil. It is at the bottom of the oceans, part of seaweed, and of all living things. It cycles throughout nature in what is called the carbon cycle. Carbon and its cycle are central to the sustainability of life on Earth. We need to find out how much carbon is on the EarthEarth and how it moves from deep within to near the surface. Humans have much to learn about carbon but depend on carbon for life.

Activity 1 – The Carbon Cycle

The steps in the carbon cycle weave daily solar energy with seasonal and perennial photosynthesis of plants converting water and CO2 into sugars and giving off oxygen; respiration, in turn, converts the glucose(sugar) into energy for the plant’s cells to grow and thrive. The carbon cycle constantly exchanges carbon from the Earth’s biosphere(living matter), with the air in the atmosphere, with the living materials in the hydrosphere (waters), and with the carbon in the soil and rocks sediments of the geosphere. Make a diagram of the carbon cycle moving through Earth’s spheres.

Activity 2 – The Carbon Exchange

Carbon, the giver of life, moves through all locations of life - Earth’s atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere. Starting with photosynthesis, plants take in the sun’s energy, carbon dioxide from the air, and water. They combine carbon dioxide with hydrogen and oxygen from water to create sugar molecules for power in a process called respiration. Animals that eat plants digest the sugar molecules to get energy for their bodies. Respiration, excretion, and decomposition release and exchange the carbon back into the atmosphere and soil, continuing the cycle. Near-surface carbon attempts to balance Earth’s climate and the temperature of our atmosphere. Diagram the sun’s energy coming into the atmosphere and the Earth’s carbon response to balance the temperature.

Activity 3 – The Slow Carbon Cycle

On land, our oldest ancestors, rocks, contain carbon. Millions of years ago, plants and animals began to store carbon in their decaying and decayed biomass. Rivers washing over the stones weather the rocks’ surface removing calcium ions. The faithful rivers carry these ions into the oceans. There they react with the carbonate dissolved in water, creating calcium carbonate. This mixture slowly sifts to the bottom of the ocean floor, where it hardens into limestone. This process takes millions of years and is called the slow carbon cycle. The limestone sediment and its embedded carbon delivered by the rivers to the bottom of the oceans is yet unknown. Human production and consumption is the most significant contributor to the current increased carbon on Earth.

Activity 4 – Fast Carbon Cycle

The four seasons are the drivers of the fast carbon cycle. The spring and summer months of the Northern Hemisphere show the reduction of carbon in the Earth'sEarth’s atmosphere due to plant growth drinking in carbon and dispersing oxygen on both land and water. During the fall and winter, the decomposition of plants returns carbon dioxide into the air. The seasons challenge the presence of near-surface carbon attempts to balance Earth’s climate and the temperature of our atmosphere. Draw a map of the Earth showing vegetation growth on land and in water in spring and summer in the Northern hemisphere. Draw it filling back up with carbon in the fall and winter months.

Activity 5 – Carbon and the Oceans

Water covers almost 75% of the Earth. This water in the oceans holds 50% more carbon than the atmosphere. The sun’s heat drives the temperature of the oceans’ hypothermal currents, first on the surface, then mid-depth, and finally in the deepest part of the ocean. The heat from the sun moves the ocean currents and drives Earth’s climate. Carbon is exchanged between the atmosphere and the ocean’s surface waters daily. Plant life in the oceans in the form of minute diatoms, phytoplankton, algae, and seaweed photosynthesize and produce 80% of the world’s oxygen.

Activity 6 – Carbon and the Gifts of the Land

Over billions of years, nature’s lifecycle created fossil fuels of coal, oil, petroleum, stones like limestone, and coral. Ancient civilizations lived lighter on the land than today. store carbon which is released when extracted and used by humans. Now powerplants combust fossil fuels, cars burn petroleum and gasoline, engines quickly and constantly release carbon into the atmosphere contributing to air pollution, ocean acidification, carbon dioxide release in agriculture and industry, and temperature rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that it is urgent to control carbon release and to reach the 2030 goal of only a 1.5% temperature increase. Take this Carbon footprint quiz. Look at ways to cut your carbon footprint in your house, your food, your clothes, your energy use, and your transportation. List five things that you can do to lower your family’s carbon footprint.

Activity 7 – Changes in the Carbon Cycle and What you can do!

The world is changing. The fast carbon exchanges over a few years are polluting with the combustion of forests, the burning of fossil fuels, the driving of gasoline-powered vehicles, and the rising carbon footprint of wealthier countries. As a result, air pollution is on the rise, drought is increasing, and temperatures are rising. But, on the other hand, the slow carbon cycle that takes millions of years to complete is disappearing. Since the Industrial Revolution, people burned so much fuel, and produced so much carbon dioxide into the air that the global climate has risen over one degree Fahrenheit. In 150 years, people have accrued the most carbon in the atmosphere that it has had in 420,000 years. Higher temperatures and carbon release increase greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, significantly impacting the planet’s warming. What can you do to change the future? It starts with you.


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