Vital Climate Graphics - Update



Carbon, carbon everywhere

Carbon is one of the most abundant elements in the Universe. It is the basis of all organic sub- stances, from fossil fuels to human cells. On Earth, carbon is continually on the move – cycling through living things, the land, ocean, atmosphere, and even the Earth’s interior. In some areas it moves quickly, in others it takes eons. The fast part of the cycle includes us – from birth to death and decomposition in perhaps 80 years – whereas carbon locked in marine sediments may remain undisturbed for millions of years. What happens when humans start driving the carbon cycle? We have seen that we can make a seri- ous impact – rapidly raising the level of carbon in the atmosphere. But we really have no idea what we are doing. At the moment we don’t even know what happens to all the carbon we release from burning fossil fuel. Obviously a lot of it goes into the atmosphere, but every year we loose track of between 15 and 30% (NASA). Scientists speculate that it is taken up by land vegetation, but no one really knows. This sort of uncertainty makes it doubly difficult to predict the outcome of tampering with something as complex as the carbon cycle.


Atmosphere 750

Fossil fuel emissions 5,5

Exchange soil - Atmosphere

Plant growth and decay




Terrestrial vegetation 540 - 610

Fossil fuel and cement production 4 000

Land use changes



Soils and organic matter 1 580

The present carbon cycle

Coal deposit 3 000

Storage and flux of carbon in billions of tonnes Arrows are proportional to the volume of carbon. Flux figures express the volume exchanged each year

Speed of exchange processes

Very fast (less than 1 year) Fast (1 to 10 years) Slow (10 to 100 years) Very slow (more than 100 years)

Oil and gas deposit 300

Sources: Center for Climatic Research, Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Okanagan University College in Canada, Department of Geography; World Watch, November- December 1998; Nature.

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