Here’s where Earth stores its carbon

Asteroid impacts, giant lava outflows and now humans have released enormous amounts of carbon

Lastarria volcano in Chile

Generally, the carbon that escapes Earth's mantle through processes like volcanic activity (gas sampling at Lastarria volcano in Chile shown) is balanced by the carbon folded back into the planet's interior through plate tectonics. But anomalies like massive lava outflows and human-driven pollution have upset that balance.

Yves Moussallam/Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory

Human-driven carbon pollution is wreaking havoc on the global climate, from bleaching tropical corals to melting polar ice caps. But the amount of carbon in Earth’s oceans and atmosphere barely scratches the surface of the planet’s vast carbon reservoirs.

Over the last decade, researchers affiliated with the international Deep Carbon Observatory have taken inventory of where Earth keeps its carbon, and how carbon cycles throughout the planet. Although Earth’s carbon cycle has generally kept all but the tiniest bit of carbon stashed underground, asteroid impacts and massive volcanic eruptions have occasionally released catastrophic amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Investigating these historic upsets, outlined in a series of papers published in October in Elements, may lend insight into the consequences of rampant carbon pollution today.

About 43,500 billion metric tons of carbon is found aboveground — peanuts, compared with the 1.845 billion billion tons stockpiled in Earth’s mantle and crust. Estimates for the carbon content of Earth’s core are murky, but “core carbon is pretty locked up,” says Deep Carbon Observatory geologist Celina Suarez of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Mantle carbon, on the other hand, continually escapes through volcanoes and mid-ocean ridges, and sinks back down with subducting tectonic plates. 

Typically, “what [carbon] comes out goes back in,” Suarez says. But analyses of carbon in rock from different times in Earth’s history have revealed events that severely upended Earth’s balanced carbon budget. Among these cataclysms was the Chicxulub asteroid strike thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. The impact vaporized carbon-rich rock, releasing hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (SN: 11/2/17).

Other disasters include a handful of enormous magma eruptions called large igneous provinces, which each covered up to a million square kilometers. Such widespread lava flows, which could have released a few billion tons of carbon each year as they erupted, may have contributed to mass die-offs like the Permian-Triassic extinction event 252 million years ago (SN: 5/6/11).

Today, people flood the air with carbon at an even higher rate of about 10 billion tons per year. That’s around 100 times the current emissions of all of Earth’s volcanic regions, from volcanic eruptions as well as carbon passively leaking from soil, lakes and other sources, says Tobias Fischer, a Deep Carbon Observatory volcanologist and geochemist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

We’ve already seen far-reaching consequences of rampant human carbon emissions (SN: 9/25/19). But studying calamitous carbon releases throughout Earth’s history may help us anticipate how runaway carbon pollution plays out in the long run, Suarez says.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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