The accumulation of carbon dioxide gas in Earth’s atmosphere, because of human activities, is the main cause of the warming of the climate. But carbon dioxide gas in the air is just one form that the element carbon can take in Earth’s environment.
Carbon is caught up in a complicated cycle of chemical and biological activities. The world’s oceans, plants, and mud together contain five times as much carbon as the air. Carbon accumulates in trees and soil, algae and sediment, microorganisms and seawater. It is stored as organic material produced by living things, and can also be released back into the air by their activities. Scientists need to study this process of the accumulation and release of carbon to understand how it might mitigate global climate change, or make the consequences worse.
In 2021 a team of ecologists from California published a new mathematical model of the dynamics of carbon accumulation by microorganisms in the ocean. The model reconciles several existing theories into a more comprehensive framework. The authors argue that simulations based on the model can be used to reliably predict the accumulation of carbon in these systems.Some of the model’s predictions are worrisome. For example, it predicts that as the oceans warm due to global climate change, microorganisms will consume more organic matter, and release more carbon dioxide gas causing more warming in a runaway cycle. This feature of the model may, in part, explain the sudden naturally occurring climate changes that have often occurred in Earth’s distant geological past. The model will foster more research, and inform public policy as we navigate the crisis of global climate change.