What Is the Role of Water in the Carbon Cycle?

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  • 0:02 What Is the Carbon Cycle?
  • 1:09 Carbon Cycle Steps
  • 2:43 Oceans in the Carbon Cycle
  • 4:19 Precipitation and Groundwater
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll go over the basics of the carbon cycle, then we'll examine the role water plays. We'll look at the role of both oceans and precipitation.

What Is the Carbon Cycle?

Picture a world where our oceans have flooded the shores. Vacation destinations for umbrellas and tiki drinks are long gone under rising sea levels. Precipitation increases in some areas, causing mass flooding. Other areas have dried up, decreasing crop yields. Animals like polar bears and seals decrease drastically in number, due to these changes in climate. Although this bleak scenario is somewhat far off, it's a real consequence of disrupting the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle is the global movement of carbon between living and non-living things. Recently increased levels of carbon dioxide are contributing to a process called global warming, which as it sounds, is a global increase in temperature. Some of the predicted long term effects of global warming are described above, and until we restore an equilibrium of the carbon cycle, this could be our future. Today, we're going to learn the details of the carbon cycle and how water helps regulate it.

Carbon Cycle Steps

The 'cycle' part of the carbon cycle indicates it goes around in a circle, with no clear beginning and end point. For our purposes, let's start with carbon in living things. Carbon is the main element making up all living things on Earth. Trees take in carbon from the atmosphere and use a process called photosynthesis to turn it into sugar. The tree then uses the sugar to build its structure. This means that the giant sequoia trees over 200 feet tall were, basically, dependent on carbon in the air in order to form. Trees are a major player in removing carbon from the atmosphere. We, too, are made of carbon, but unlike trees, we humans - as well as other animals, fungi, and bacteria - add carbon to the atmosphere.

The earth and oceans are also major carbon sinks, or stores of carbon. Rocks, such as coal, store carbon deep inside the earth, where carbon from the atmosphere has been compressed into rock over millions of years. When oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere, some dissolves in the ocean and some is incorporated into ocean plants and animals.

Recently, humans have been disrupting this cycle. Drilling for carbon reservoirs, like coal and natural gas, have removed carbon from the earth. When we burn these materials, we return the carbon to the atmosphere at a rate that is higher than what is absorbed, leading to an increase in atmospheric carbon and thus, global warming.

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