You are on page 1of 37



The Earth is a system containing essentially a fixed

amount of each stable chemical atom or

• Each element can exist in several different


• Each element on Earth moves among

reservoirs in the solid Earth, oceans,
atmosphere and organisms as part of
geochemical cycles.

A cycle describes the distribution, transport and

behavior of elements through the reservoirs.

Like a circle, a cycle does not have a beginning

or end and can move in any direction.

If the element primarily cycles between the

reservoirs but excluding organisms then it follows
the geochemical cycle.
If the element passes through all the reservoirs and
also between organisms then it traces a
biogeochemical cycle.

Basic Concepts

• Reservoirs
- There are usually physical states, chemical
forms and locations in the cycle in which
nature stores the various chemical elements.
-A source or place of residence for elements in a
geochemical cycle
- Elements are bound up in a particular space.
- Elements reside as specific forms
- Usually expressed in terms of the mass in
gigatons (Gt), (billions of metric tons)

• Flux
- Movement of elements into or out of a
-The fluxes or movements between these
reservoirs are often accompanied by a
change in the physical and chemical
properties of matter.
• Transfer mechanisms
- Processes that move elements between
- They usually involve a physical process
and a chemical reaction
• Transfer rate
- Usually expressed in terms of Gt
(gigatons, billions of metric tons) per

• Residence time in a reservoir

- The average time an atom of an element
or molecule of a compound, remains in a
reservoir, of each reservoir.
- Using quantitative data about a cycle, we can
calculate residence time
- Estimated by dividing the amount of the
element in that reservoir by the transfer
rates in and out of it.

Some Stores and Transfer Pathways in a

Geochemical Cycle
Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by
the Earth’s internal and external sources of
Carbon, for example, occurs in

• carbonate rocks, such as limestone,

• the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas

• water as dissolved carbon dioxide and

• all organisms as complex molecules that

control the chemistry of life.

The residence time for atmospheric carbon dioxide

is 760 Gt divided by 60 Gt per year or ~13 years.
(Amount of the element in a reservoir divided by the
transfer rates in and out).

Due to the

• complexities of the chemical processes in

the Earth System,

• extensive interconnections between cycles,


• wide range of time scales involved,

in practice only approximate forms of the cycles

for key elements have been constructed.


• The circulation of carbon and its compounds is

one of Earth's fundamental geochemical cycles.

• It involves the cycling of carbon through

reservoirs in the geosphere, atmosphere,
hydrosphere and biota over a wide range of
space and time scales.

• This cycling has gone on throughout most of

Earth's history, and has greatly modified the
composition of Earth's atmosphere while
producing great beds of carbonate rocks in
the geosphere.
A box model depicting the relative sizes of the
carbon cycle reservoirs and fluxes

In a box model the figure is not intended to depict a

visual representation of the cycle and its
components, but a quantitative feeling for the
relative sizes.
• Size of cycle reservoirs
• Reservoirs are simply boxes scale to the stock of
the particular reservoir.
• Rates of cycle fluxes.
• Fluxes are drawn as arrows of varying thickness.

The biota-living things - play key roles in the

carbon cycle.

• Carbon is used by plants in the form of carbon

dioxide (CO2) in photosynthesis to generate
the carbohydrates and the energy needed for
their survival.

• In this process, carbon is withdrawn from the

atmosphere and locked up in complex
molecules (the oxygen is returned to the

• Animals - non-photosynthetic organisms -

breathe oxygen, consume carbon by eating
plants and/or other animals, and give back CO2
to the atmosphere.

• When either type of organism dies, the organic

matter decays and the carbon in the complex
molecules are released, generally as CO2,
methane, etc.

For practical purposes, the global carbon cycle can

be taken to consist of exchanges of carbon via three
geochemical loops that operate on vastly
different time scales as follows:
1) An atmosphere - terrestrial biosphere loop

• Terrestrial plants take up carbon via

photosynthesis – in the form of dioxide (CO2) - from
the atmosphere and store it in their tissues.
• Decaying organic matter and forest and grass
fires return it to the atmosphere as CO2, methane
(CH4), and other carbon compounds.

• Time scales range from seasonal to

decadal to centennial.
• On these time scales, the ocean exchanges only
a relatively small amount of carbon with the

• Cutting down forests or plants may destabilize

the environment because of a net reduction in
global photosynthesis.
• As a consequence, less carbon is absorbed
from the atmosphere (and less oxygen is
returned to it).

2) A terrestrial biosphere-geosphere-
hydrosphere loop

• This loop involves the medium to long-term

storage of carbon via burial of organic
materials in swamps, marshes and estuaries.
• In the short term, this loop produces peat, and
so is connected to the atmosphere - terrestrial
biosphere loop.
• On a much longer time scale, the Earth’s
crustal processes bury some of this material and
alter it to produce kerogen, coals, oil and natural
• With the passage of more time, the Earth’s
crustal processes return these materials to Earth's
surface where "weathering" then returns the
stored carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 or CH4.

• The "natural" time scales in this loop range from

1,000's to 10's of millions of years.

• Humankind has short-circuited this loop,

connecting it to the atmosphere - terrestrial
biosphere loop via the burning of fossil fuels for
energy. Carbon is the principal element present in
"fossil fuels". The burning of these fuels again
releases carbon as CO or CO2.

The terrestrial carbon cycle

3) An atmosphere-geosphere-hydrosphere loop

• This loop involves accumulation of calcium

carbonate (CaCO3) in marine sediments.
• Carbon diffuses from the atmosphere into the
• Marine plankton in the oceanic biosphere extract
dissolved CO2 from sea water to form shells
of calcite.
• When the plankton die, their shells settle to
the sea floor where they accumulate in thick

• Weathering of rocks also removes CO2 from the

atmosphere; the resulting solution flows to the
ocean where it precipitates to form sediments.
• When the layers of sediment are compacted and
harden, they become limestone.
• These bottom sediments are ultimately
metamorphized, with much of the carbon returning
to the atmosphere via volcanoes.

• Time scales range from millions to 100's of

millions of years.

• Great amounts of limestone are also buried in

Earth's crust so that today, Earth's greatest
reservoir of carbon is found in crustal rocks,
especially in limestone.

The aquatic carbon cycle

Global carbon reservoirs, fluxes, and turnover times
are given in the figure below
Major reservoirs are underlined.

Turnover times (reservoir divided by largest flux to or

from reservoir) are in parentheses.
Sedimentary carbonates and kerogen are the
largest carbon reservoirs, followed by marine
dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), soils, surface
sediments and the atmosphere.
• The living biomass reservoir is somewhat smaller
than the atmospheric carbon reservoir and
actively exchanges with the atmospheric
reservoir through photosynthesis and

Important fluxes or transfers take place between

• Turnover or residence times for the reservoirs
range from >>106 yr for kerogen in the
sediment reservoir, 103 -105 yr for peats and
soil carbon, about three years for atmospheric
CO2 and less than one year for ocean biomass.

The major long-term sink for carbon is burial in deep

sea sediments. Protection of photosynthetically fixed
organic carbon from oxidation by photosynthetic
oxygen (respiration), and has permitted
accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere and
ocean over geologic time. The carbon cycle is
completed by weathering of marine shales or by
combustion of fossil fuels

The nitrogen cycle is the circulation of the

element nitrogen and its compounds through
the Earth System.

• All life requires nitrogen-compounds, e.g.,

proteins and nucleic acids.
Nitrogen States
N2 Elemental nitrogen "N2" is a gaseous form of
NH3: Ammonia "NH3" is a gaseous form of N
derived from the breakdown of organic
matter, especially animal waste, and some
surface-applied fertilizers.
NO: Nitric oxide, a gaseous form of N, is found in
the atmosphere. It is derived from de-
nitrification, automobile exhaust, and industrial
N20: Nitrous oxide, a gaseous form of N, is found
in the atmosphere. It is derived from de-
nitrification, automobile exhaust, and industrial

NH4+: Ammonium "NH4+" is attracted to soil

particles. It can be absorbed by plants. Most
ammonium is readily transformed to nitrate.
NO3 : Nitrate "NO3-" is not attracted to soil

particles. Nitrate can be absorbed by plants or

moved through the soil past the rooting zone
Fertilizer: Plant nutrients that are added to the soils.

Volatilization: Ammonium or urea changed to

ammonia which as a gas is released
into the air.

Animal Wastes: Animal excreta applied to soil for


Organic Matter: Decomposed plant or animal


Immobilization: Inorganic N used by

microorganisms changed into its
organic form

Mineralization Slow release of nutrients from

organic material.
Biological Fixation
Legumes (plants) make or "fix" N.
Special bacteria live on the roots of legumes. Receive
"food" in the form of carbohydrates from plants and,
in return, use nitrogen (N2) and changes it to organic
forms for plants

Nitrification Ammonia (NH4+) is changed to nitrate

(NO3-) by soil bacteria

De-nitrification: Nitrate (NO3-) is changed to

gaseous forms of nitrogen [elemental nitrogen (N2),
nitrous oxide (N2O), nitric oxide (NO)] by soil bacteria
when the soil is very wet (saturated).

Crop Uptake and Removal: The loss of nutrients

from the system when crops are harvested and part
of the plant is removed from the field.
• Most organisms cannot use elemental nitrogen

• Plants must secure their N in "fixed" form, i.e.,

incorporated in compounds such as:
o nitrate ions (NO3−)
o ammonia (NH3)
o urea (NH2)2CO

• Animals secure their N (and all other)

compounds from plants (or animals that have fed
on plants)

A schematic representation of the nitrogen cycle is

shown here:
The global nitrogen reservoirs, fluxes and turnover
times are given below

Major reservoirs are underlined.

Turnover times (reservoir divided by largest flux to or

from reservoir) are in parentheses.
• As with oxygen, the atmosphere, which
contains 78% N2, is the largest nitrogen

• Other gaseous nitrogen species important in

ozone chemistry have short lifetimes and are of
local importance.

Conversion of relatively inert N2 to other forms is

limited by the microbially mediated nitrogen fixation
rate and fixed nitrogen is rapidly incorporated into
living tissue.


Global oxygen reservoirs, fluxes and turnover times
are given in the figure below.

Major reservoirs are underlined. Turnover times

(reservoir divided by largest flux to or from reservoir)
are in parentheses. 2
• The atmosphere is the largest oxygen
reservoir and has the longest turnover time.

• The atmospheric oxygen reservoir is ~200-fold

larger and has a turnover time >106-fold longer
than the next largest reservoirs, the ocean
dissolved oxygen reservoir and long-lived plants.

• The major source of oxygen is photosynthesis,

but this is almost exactly balanced by


• P cannot be found in air in the gaseous state.
• P mainly cycles through water, soil and sediments.
• Hydrosphere - mostly dissolved PO43- (phosphate ion)
• P is mined from phosphate deposits.
• P is found in the mineral apatite, Ca(PO4)3(OH, Cl, F)


Phosphorus exists in many different forms in soil.

These can be grouped into four general forms:
(1) Inorganic P
(2) Organic P,
(3) Adsorbed P
(4) Primary mineral P

The P cycle in Fig. 1 shows the P forms and


The general P transformation processes are:

• Weathering and precipitation

Soils naturally contain P-rich minerals, which are
weathered over long periods of time.
Phosphorus can undergo precipitation when
inorganic P reacts with dissolved iron, aluminum,
manganese (in acid soils), or calcium (in alkaline
soils) to form phosphate minerals.
• Mineralization and immobilization
Mineralization is the microbial conversion of
organic P to H2PO4- or HPO42-, known as
Immobilization occurs when P forms are
consumed by microbes, turning the P into
organic P forms. The microbial P will become
available over time as the microbes die.

• Adsorption and desorption

Adsorption is the chemical binding of P to soil
Desorption is the release of adsorbed P from its
bound state into the soil solution.
A schematic representation of the phosphorus cycle:

Global phosphorus reservoirs, fluxes and turnover

times are given in the figure below.
Major reservoirs are underlined. Turnover times
(reservoir divided by largest flux to or from reservoir)
are in parentheses.
A schematic representation of the sulfur cycle:
Most of the earth's sulfur is tied up in rocks
and salts or buried deep in the ocean in
oceanic sediments.

Sulfur can also be found in the atmosphere.

It enters the atmosphere through both natural and

anthropogenic sources.
• Natural sources can be, for instance, volcanic
eruptions, bacterial processes, evaporation from
water, or decaying organisms.
• When sulfur enters the atmosphere through
human activity, this is mainly a consequence
of industrial processes where sulfur dioxide
(SO2) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gases
are emitted on a wide scale.

• When sulfur dioxide enters the atmosphere it

will react with oxygen to produce sulfur
trioxide gas (SO3), or with other chemicals to
produce sulfur salts.
• Sulfur dioxide may also react with water to
produce sulphuric acid (H2SO4).
• Sulphuric acid may also be produced from
demethylsulphide, which is emitted to the
atmosphere by plankton species.

Sulfur behaves very much like nitrogen, as far

as the way plants and microorganisms use
sulfur in the environment.

The organic forms of S must be mineralized by

soil microorganisms

Jaffe, D. A., 1992, The Nitrogen Cycle. pp. 263-284.

In: Global Biogeochemical Cycles, S. S. Butcher, R. J.
Charlson, G. H. Orians & G. V. Wolfe, eds., Academic
Press, San Diego.
Sšderlund, R. and B. H. Svensson, 1976, The global
nitrogen cycle. Ecol. Bull. (Stockholm) 22:23-73.
Jahnke, R. A.,1992, The Phosphorus Cycle, pp. 301-
315. In: Global Biogeochemical Cycles, S. S.
Butcher, R. J. Charlson, G. H. Orians & G. V. Wolfe,
eds., Academic Press, San Diego.
Berner, E. K. and R. A. Berner, 1996, Global
Environment, Water Air and Geochemical Cycles,
376 pp., Prentice-Hall, Upper Sattle River, NJ.