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Origin and Evolution of Earth: Research Questions for a Changing Planet
FIGURE 3.1 Schematic view of the global climate system, showing many of the flows of energy, water, and CO2 that control the climate and the processes that play a role in regulating Earth’s greenhouse and determining what happens to the solar energy. Not shown is the warm circulation near midocean ridges, which moves CO2 from the ocean to the shallow oceanic crust. SOURCE: After <http://www.carleton.edu/departments/geol/DaveSTELLA/climate/climate_modeling_1.htm>. Courtesy of David Bice, Pennsylvania State University. Used with permission.
Studies of the carbon cycle are aimed at understanding how the atmospheric carbon content is regulated by geological and biological processes. Over the past century, fossil fuel burning has overwhelmed natural processes, quickly transferring a large amount of buried carbon (in the form of organic matter, petroleum, coal, and natural gas in sedimentary rock formations) into the atmosphere as CO2. On longer timescales, natural processes (e.g., volcanism, subduction, chemical weathering, sedimentation, metamorphism, glaciation, wildfires) also shift carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, sedimentary formations, soils, plants, and deep interior. These processes produce cycles of increasing and decreasing atmospheric CO2 that occur over timescales of thousands, millions, and billions of years. At each timescale, different processes are primarily responsible for the changes.
Over the past century and through the next, changes in the greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere are the most important factor affecting climate, although changes in atmospheric particulates and clouds are also important. Burning coal, oil, and natural gas continues to add greenhouse gases and aerosols to the atmosphere, reducing emissions of infrared radiation to space and causing Earth’s global mean surface temperature to rise. The amount of increase depends on feedbacks in the climate system, especially the (poorly known) feedback from clouds. On even shorter timescales (years to decades), changes in atmospheric particle loading, notably sulfate aerosols, can affect climate, in