Biogeochemical cycles ± sulfur cyclesSulfur CycleThe cycling of sulfur between biotic and abiotic systems is called sulfur cycle. Sulfur is animportant component of proteins and amino acids. Sulfur exists in a number of states. Of these,three are important. They are elemental sulfur, sulfides and sulfates. Sulfur is present in rocks.It is made available for plants in the form of inorganic sulfate by weathering and erosion. Sulfur passes into the animals through food chain. As with nitrogen, these organic sulfur compounds arereturned to the land or water after the plants die or are consumed by animals. By the time these plants and animals die, the decomposers bring the sulfur to the soil for the use of plants.Decomposers such as the bacteria Escherichia coli release sulfur in dead bodies into the air ashydrogen sulfide (H
S) under anaerobic combustion. Similarly incomplete combustion of fossilfuel release sulfur dioxide (SO
). The H
S are then oxidize to sulfate which can be used by plants. In the oceans, certain phytoplankton can produce a chemical that transforms to SO2 thatresides in the atmosphere. These gases can re-enter the atmosphere, water, and soil, and continuethe cycle.In its reduced oxidation state, the nutrient sulfur plays an important part in the structure andfunction of proteins. In its fully oxidized state, sulfur exists as sulfate and is the major cause of acidity in both natural and polluted rainwater. This link to acidity makes sulfur important togeochemical, atmospheric, and biological processes such as the natural weathering of rocks, acid precipitation, and rates of denitrification. Sulfur is also one of the main elemental cycles mostheavily perturbed by human activity. Estimates suggest that emissions of sulfur to theatmosphere from human activity are at least equal or probably larger in magnitude than thosefrom natural processes. Like nitrogen, sulfur can exist in many forms: as gases or sulfuric acid particles. Sulfuric acid particles contribute to the polluting smog that engulfs some industrialcenters and cities where many sulfur containing fuels are burned. Such particles floating in air (known as sulfate aerosols) can cause respiratory diseases or cool the climate by reflecting someextra sunlight to space.The lifetime of most sulfur compounds in the air is relatively short (e.g. days). Superimposed onthese fast cycles of sulfur are the extremely slow sedimentary-cycle processes or erosion,sedimentation, and uplift of rocks containing sulfur. In addition, sulfur compounds fromvolcanoes are intermittently injected into the atmosphere, and a continual stream of thesecompounds is produced from industrial activities. These compounds mix with water vapor andform sulfuric acid smog. In addition to contributing to acid rain, the sulfuric acid droplets of smog form a haze layer that reflects solar radiation and can cause a cooling of the earth's surface.While many questions remain concerning specifics, the sulfur cycle in general, and acid rain andsmog issues in particular are becoming major physical, biological, and social problems.