Al Fin posted his discovery of one of the finest explanations of the current state of the art in understanding and explaining the carbon cycle here on earth. An undated and unaccredited reference piece, prepared for NASA is one of many References that NASA has on its site. For us, the thorough but short explanation with illustrations is just a superb way to get up to speed. The web page deserves a book marking and keeping it in mind for assisting others.

Carbon is said to be the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium and oxygen. You may note that when we think of fuels and the “burning” or oxidation of them to release energy, three of these four are the items of interest. It might be a puzzle to think “how can the four most common elements be such an economic problem for fuels and energy release?” Solar radiation has done the work so far in providing the recombining in photosynthesis and geologic heat and pressure over time has served up the processing, concentration and clearing of the oxygen.

We’ve said here before that humanity needs to get much more up to speed on the carbon cycle and learn to participate intelligently with the planetary system. To understand what takes place the NASA Reference is the best so far. It only slightly and gently sides off into global warming and does not discredit itself. It’s well worth the few minutes to study it.

Geologic Carbon Cycle

Four main parts outline the page, with the geological carbon cycle first. The geological cycle operates over long periods, millions of years on out to hundreds of millions of years. The only gap left out is that the geologic cycle doesn’t much care what the biosphere cycle is doing. We should keep in mind that as we understand and learn to act within the cycle that much of what could be seized by the biosphere and sank deep into the oceans would be very difficult and expensive to recover should we need it in the future. Carbon sequestration sounds good now, but like everything else, the squirreling away of carbon idea will reverse, with a need for more instead, someday.


NASA has a short but very useful explanation of the biological process of photosynthesis driving the production of plant matter to seize atmospheric carbon. At the earliest stage of plant physiology photosynthesis makes sugars from which plants make the rest of their structure. Primarily glucose, a C6H12O6 molecule, the building blocks for the plant and the fuels humanity will wish to make is there, ready for processing then use and recycling by plants again. The only catch is that the hydrogen is still in short supply and the oxygen still abundant. This is already a workable source for fuels, but adding hydrogen and driving off the oxygen offers worthwhile benefits if process economics can make it work.

Carbon Cycle Diagram

Next, the Reference page looks at the activities on land and at sea. On land, the climate plays the main role as the weather situation determines the activity level of plants. The research to date is noted by the observation of the monthly variations of CO2 concentrations that “Over the course of a year, these biological fluxes of carbon are over ten times greater than the amount of carbon introduced to the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning.”

At sea, the variation of CO2 uptake and release is known to be a function of the water temperature. Cold water soaks up CO2 and warmed water releases it. The driver is solar radiation, more so than “climate” as the weather and climate we experience are in part products of surface water temperatures at sea. That makes the solar activity impact of great concern. Cooling seas make for reduced CO2 levels which in turn slow plant growth and cool the climate.

NASA, then looks into the role humans serve in the carbon cycle. With a firm grasp of the facts the authors just note that human releases have added to the proportions of CO2 in the atmosphere. The authors do not assume to say that, as CO2 concentrations while higher, thus are a prime cause for global warming. Instead, the work offers that much remains unknown and some tonnage of CO2 just disappears without an accounting. Its so refreshingly honest.

The last part is a narrative about the existing orbiting research satellites and what is expected to come on line over time. Although its not specified, it seems the data has mounted and the power to form databases and explore the information to responsible and informative results is an ongoing effort.

This leaves us with a considerable depth and grasp of what is going on and some hints about what role humanity will need to adopt over the coming years. NASA’s Reference page is a very good start and will serve most everyone with a basic sense of what’s going on and offers clues as to the direction of research and the prospects of how humanity might choose to act to improve the quality of life for every species of plant and animal living on the earth. Well done, NASA.

Please pass the NASA site link on!


2 Comments so far

  1. Floyd Blackwall on October 19, 2010 4:12 PM

    Very helpful reading. Nice piece of info, very well written article.

  2. educational grants on November 8, 2010 9:22 AM

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