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 and is the fourth most abundant element on Earth. It has six proteins, six neutrons, and 6 electrons, so it is the 6th element of the periodic table. Carbon is vital in bonding other components together. Carbon is present in all living matter- animals, humans, plants, and rocks. It exists in coal and diamonds! It is in the air we breathe in (O) and in the air we breathe out (CO2). We are 16% carbon and 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 Earth 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, the living materials in the hydrosphere (waters), and the carbon in the soil and rock 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. Both the Slow Carbon Cycle and the Fast Carbon Cycle contribute to the movement of carbon throughout all locations of life. 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 is the slow carbon cycle and takes millions of years. The limestone sediment and its embedded carbon delivered by the rivers to the bottom of the oceans is yet unknown. Human production and consumption are the most significant contributor to the current increased carbon on Earth. In fact, with the growth of the human population in the last 100 years, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has increased %. Diagram the Slow Carbon Cycle and label the key components.
Activity 4 – The 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’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. Watch the Carbon Change through the seasonsDraw 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 – Participants in the Carbon Cycle
Carbon cycles through various forms in nature as part of all organic compounds. Carbon dioxide, or (CO2), is in the air and dissolved in water. Plant producers like Algae in the oceans and green plants on the continents process carbon dioxide through photosynthesis into carbohydrates. Producers metabolize carbohydrates as energy, storing any excess as fats and polysaccharides. Consumer organisms, from people to protozoans, convert them into other forms. CO2 is added directly to the atmosphere by Animals, and other organisms contribute CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration. Bacteria and Fungi decay carbon in the bodies of all organisms, releasing more CO2. Make a carbon chain diagram of reactions across all life forms.
Activity 6 – 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. The increase in carbon release and production is altering the temperature of the Earth’s great oceans and the water cycles, causing more intense weather and coastal flooding with storm surges. Watch the Sun as the Driver of Climate) and diagram the ocean currents in sections from the surface to the depths.
Activity 7 – Carbon and the Gifts of the Land
Over billions of years, nature’s lifecycle created fossil fuels of coal, oil, petroleum, and stones like limestone and coral. Ancient civilizations lived lighter on the land than today. Today stored carbon is released when extracted and used by humans. Power plants combust fossil fuels; cars burn petroleum and gasoline, and 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 IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls to control carbon release to reach the 2030 goal of only a 1.5% temperature increase. Take this Carbon footprint quiz. Look at how to cut your carbon footprint in your house, your food, your clothes, your energy use, and your transportation. List five things you can do to reduce your family’s carbon footprint.
Activity 8 – 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 global warming. So what can you do to change the future? It starts with you. Make a list of changes you can make to reduce your carbon footprint.
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- DOE Explains the Carbon Cycle
- Earth's Seasonal Carbon Sequestration
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- Kahn Academy The Carbon Cycle
- NAT GEO Carbon In the World
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- Roman Seawater Concrete Secrets for Cutting Carbon Emissions
- Yhe Mauna Loa Observatory Carbon Records