The long-term carbon cycle, fossil fuels and atmospheric composition


The long-term carbon cycle operates over millions of years and involves the exchange of carbon between rocks and the Earth's surface. There are many complex feedback pathways between carbon burial, nutrient cycling, atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen, and climate. New calculations of carbon fluxes during the Phanerozoic eon (the past 550 million years) illustrate how the long-term carbon cycle has affected the burial of organic matter and fossil-fuel formation, as well as the evolution of atmospheric composition.

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Figure 1: A model of the long-term carbon cycle.
Figure 2: Plot of global organic carbon burial during the Phanerozoic eon compared with the times of deposition of major oil and gas source rocks.
Figure 3: Plots of organic carbon/pyrite sulphur (C:S) buried in sediments versus time, compared with the fraction of oil and gas source rocks that are of type III (including coal).
Figure 4: Systems-analysis diagram showing some of the feedback relationships between marine organic carbon burial, nutrients, climate, atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen, and ocean circulation.
Figure 5: Plots of RCO2 (the ratio of the mass of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the past to that for the pre-industrial present) and %O2 during the Phanerozoic eon.


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This research was supported by grants from the US Department of Energy and the US National Science Foundation.

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Berner, R. The long-term carbon cycle, fossil fuels and atmospheric composition. Nature 426, 323–326 (2003).

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