Carbon Cycle Steps

Mary Gormandy White
Photosynthesis is an important part of the carbon cycle.

Developing an understanding of the carbon cycle steps is an important part of learning just how important it is for humans to change many of their environmentally harmful habits. In order to fully comprehend the impact of fossil fuel mining on the current state of the environment, it's necessary to understand what the carbon cycle is and how it works.

What is the Carbon Cycle?

The phrase carbon cycle is used to describe how the carbon in the environment flows among living beings, inorganic matter and the atmosphere. The path that carbon follows as it cycles through the air, earth, plants, animals and fossil fuels literally defines life as we know it.

Understanding the Carbon Cycle Steps

The carbon cycle is basically a two step process involving photosynthesis and respiration. Green plants undergo both photosynthesis and respiration. Fungi and animal life only respire. Carbon is "cycled" from green plants to the atmosphere and back to the plant.

1. Photosynthesis

During photosynthesis, green plants use radiant energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, which are high energy molecules.

2. Respiration

During the respiration step, the plants turn the carbohydrates back into water and carbon dioxide, releasing the energy that was used to build the carbohydrates. This is this energy that the plant uses to live during the night.

Animals also undergo the process of respiration. When humans and animals eat plants, the carbohydrates are converted back into water and carbon dioxide, both of which are exhaled. The energy released during respiration is used to make Adenine Triphosphate (ATP), which is necessary for human and animal cells to function.

What Happens During the Carbon Cycle?

While photosynthesis and respiration form the basis for the carbon cycle, they do not paint the complete picture of everything that happens during the process. In order to comprehend the carbon cycle, it's important to understand what happens when carbon dioxide is released and how fossil fuels are formed.

Release of Carbon Dioxide

When a green plant dies, the carbohydrates are usually broken down by fungi or bacteria, which are decomposers. The Fungi and bacteria undergo respiration, which allows them to release the carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Fossil Fuel Formation

Fossil fuels were formed as green plants or plantlike protists (single celled organisms) that underwent photosynthesis and then died. They sank to the bottom of the ocean. Some of the protists were eaten by decomposers. Over time, the ones that weren't eaten became what we know as fossil fuels. As layers of carbohydrate-rich material accumulated on the ocean floor, they were covered by sediment that fell to the bottom. Over time, the pressure of the layers helped convert the carbohydrates into oil and natural gas.

Coal is also a fossil fuel that came into being as a result of the carbon cycle steps, forming when plants die in a swamp rather than in the ocean. The environment of swamp water is very acidic, warm, and oxygen poor, creating conditions in which decomposers cannot survive. In this ecosystem, layers of undecomposed plant material built up, and the pressure forced the hydrocarbons to lose their hydrogen atoms. The end result of this pressurization over time is anthracite coal.

Why is the Carbon Cycle Important?

When people burn fossil fuels, the carbon that was originally taken up from the atmosphere by the plants is released as carbon dioxide. New carbon atoms aren't produced and introduced into the atmosphere. The carbon atoms that exist in the world today have been in existence since the beginning of time. These atoms, which are necessary to sustain life, are still here because they have been recycled countless times via the carbon cycle. If the carbon cycle can no longer function properly, life as we know it will be changed drastically.

Environmental Impact

Every day, millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day. Unfortunately, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It absorbs infrared light. The atmosphere can therefore absorb more heat than it used to be able to store, which results in the phenomenon commonly referred to as global warming.

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Carbon Cycle Steps