PerspectiveGeochemistry

Carbon Cycle Makeover

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Science  01 Feb 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6119, pp. 533-534
DOI: 10.1126/science.1231981

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Summary

In 1845, the French chemist and mining engineer Jacques-Joseph Ebelman figured out why Earth's atmosphere contains oxygen (1). Oxygen is produced by plants during photosynthesis, but almost all of this oxygen is used again in respiration. Ebelman reasoned that small amounts of organic matter remaining in sediments after respiration leave a residual of oxygen in the atmosphere. The source of oxygen to the atmosphere represented by organic matter burial is balanced by oxygen sinks associated with rock weathering and chemical reaction with volcanic gases. This is the long-term carbon and oxygen geochemical cycle. But Earth is an old planet, and oxygen levels have changed through time (2). On page 540 of this issue, Schrag et al. (3) challenge the most commonly used geochemical approach to assess long-term changes in the coupled oxygen and carbon cycles.