Visualize the Carbon Cycle Through Landscapes

11 November 2023

As travel experience providers, we bring our guests up close and personal with important earth systems out in the wild every day. Offering deeper context about the landscape or what they are witnessing can enhance the traveler experience, so you may consider integrating a little science into your conversations with guests when possible! To assist, Tomorrow’s Air provides regular “Airbites” – short descriptions of important science you can use in your trips. 

Read on for a simple description of the carbon cycle and its three states of solid, liquid, and gas.  

When carbon dioxide is sucked out of the atmosphere and stored permanently underground, what existed as a gas in the atmosphere turns into solid rock. We can’t see this happening with our naked eye, but in fact it's happening all around us, all the time. As you review the information below, maybe an itinerary you lead will come to mind that offers real-life examples of the different states of carbon – think forests, volcanic landscapes, and coral reefs.

When organisms die, forests blaze, volcanoes erupt, or fossil fuels are burned, the carbon stored in these entities is released back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. Carbon is constantly traveling from the atmosphere to the earth and back to the atmosphere, this concept is called the carbon cycle, and it is nature’s way of reusing carbon atoms. This process happens very slowly; it can take thousands of years for the carbon released into the atmosphere to make its way back into geological reserves (CLEAR Center). 

?Quick chemistry: On its journey from air, to earth, and to the ocean, carbon bonds with different atoms and changes its state from solid, to liquid, to gas. 

  • Solid: When rocks are exposed to carbon dioxide (CO2), a chemical reaction occurs between the metals in the rock (ex: magnesium or calcium) and the gaseous CO2, forming solid carbon compounds called carbonates. This process as a whole is called carbon mineralization, and is essential for understanding carbon storage, enhanced rock weathering, and biochar production. 

  • Liquid: When carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, it bonds with water molecules (H2O) to form carbonic acid. In the ocean, carbonic acid breaks up further to form hydrogen ions and bicarbonate ions, which contribute to ocean acidification. 

  • Gas: During combustion, carbon combines with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide and water vapor. (Biology Advanced Concepts)

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