Geography Carbon Cycle
Elena Lioubimtseva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0107


The global carbon cycle plays a central role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels and thus Earth’s climate. The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the atmosphere, the terrestrial biosphere, the oceans, sediments, and the Earth’s interior. It comprises a sequence of interrelated processes that are essential to making the Earth capable of sustaining life and regulating global climate. An examination of the carbon budget of a pool or reservoir can provide information about whether the pool or reservoir is functioning as a source or a sink for carbon dioxide. Accurate assessment of carbon pools, anthropogenic CO2 emissions, and their redistribution among the atmosphere, ocean, and terrestrial biosphere is critically important to better understand the global carbon cycle, to project future climate changes, and to support the climate policy process.

General Overviews

Initially discovered by Joseph Priestley in the 18th century (Priestley 1970) and studied by chemists and biologists for more than three centuries, the carbon cycle has become a central subject of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary studies during the past decades. Being an essential driver of the Earth’s climate system, the carbon cycle has attracted the interest of geographers, ecologists, soil scientists, climatologists, meteorologists, hydrologists, and geologists, as well as economists and political scientists. While a number of gases are implicated in global warming, carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important contributor, and in one sense the entire phenomenon can be seen as a human-induced perturbation of the carbon cycle. A very detailed interdisciplinary assessment of the state of knowledge of the carbon cycle in Field and Raupach 2004 consists of chapters by the world’s leading scientists sponsored by Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and the Global Carbon Project, and other international partners. Contributors emphasize that all parts of the carbon cycle are interrelated, and only by developing a framework that considers the full set of feedbacks will we be able to achieve a thorough understanding and develop effective management strategies. The Global Carbon Cycle (Archer 2010) engages readers in clear and simple terms about the many ways the global carbon cycle is woven into our climate system. By looking at the carbon cycle on three different time scales, David Archer describes how carbon interacts with climate in very distinct ways. A multidisciplinary collection of chapters in Wigley and Schimel 2000 provides detailed overviews of the carbon cycle and its role in the climate system, paleoclimatic cycles, and CO2 variations, as well as the modeling of changing trends in CO2. Ciais, et al. 2013 includes the most up-to-date review of the recent literature on carbon and other biogeochemical cycles.

  • Archer, David. The Global Carbon Cycle. Princeton Primers in Climate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    This concise overview of the subject examines the carbon cycle at three different temporal scales. A central question of the book is whether the carbon cycle could once again act to amplify climate change in centuries to come.

  • Ciais, Philippe, Christopher Sabine, Govindasamy Bala, et al. “Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles.” In Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis; Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by Thomas F. Stocker, Dahe Qin, Gian-Kasper Plattner, et al., 465–570. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    This chapter is a part of the most recent report on climate change produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I. It addresses the biogeochemical cycles of CO2, methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). It examines the current human-caused perturbation of the biogeochemical cycles of CO2, CH4, and N2O; their variations in the past coupled to climate variations; and their projected evolution during this century under future scenarios. CO2, CH4, and N2O altogether amount to 80 percent of the total radiative forcing from well-mixed greenhouse gases (GHGs).

  • Field, Christopher B., and Michael R. Raupach, eds. The Global Carbon Cycle: Integrating Humans, Climate, and the Natural World. SCOPE Report 62. Washington, DC: Island, 2004.

    The book offers a scientific assessment of the state of knowledge of the carbon cycle. Its multidisciplinary chapters include an assessment of carbon-climate-human interactions, a portfolio of carbon management options, spatial and temporal distribution of sources and sinks of carbon dioxide, and socioeconomic driving forces of emissions scenarios.

  • Priestley, Joseph. Autobiography of Joseph Priestley: Memoirs Written by Himself. Introduction by Jack Lindsay. Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970.

    Joseph Priestley’s works laid the foundation for chemistry as a scientific discipline. Although Priestley is best known for his experiments with gases, he was extraordinarily prolific in his writings on other fields, such as education, moral philosophy, theology, metaphysics, political economy, history, and physical science. Autobiography originally published in 1806 (London: J. Johnson).

  • Wigley, Tom M. L., and David S. Schimel, eds. The Carbon Cycle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511573095

    A multidisciplinary, multiauthor collection of chapters on the carbon cycle and climate change. It consists of four parts: introduction, the missing carbon sink, paleo-CO2 variations, and modeling CO2 changes.

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