Round and Round: A Guide to the Carbon Cycle

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Science  25 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5948, pp. 1642-1643
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_1642

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Carbon continuously cycles through living creatures, the atmosphere, the oceans, and Earth itself in one of nature's more amazing balancing acts. The main building block of life, carbon is fixed into terrestrial and marine plant tissue through photosynthesis. Animals eat other organisms and burn carbohydrates for energy, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) through respiration and through decay after death. For much longer than humans have walked the earth, carbon generation has roughly equaled carbon consumption. But humankind has tipped the scales, adding CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels—the products of eons of accumulated plant matter transformed into coal and oil by geologic processes. Science offers this user's guide to the carbon cycle.