Carbon Sinks - Visualization of Quantities
Carbon is in a constant state of flux being contained in any number of complex organic molecules to much simpler molecules such as carbon dioxide and methane. The atmosphere is the way by which it is readily transported from one place to another, here we envisage the amount of carbon in various "sinks" around the world, as well as in and above it.
There is estimated to be over 5 x 1022g of carbon on earth. One tonne is 106g, so this is 5 x 1016 tonnes, or to put it another way:
tonnes of carbon on earth
About 99% of this is locked away in sedimentary rocks such as limestone and chalk (both of these are made of calcium carbonate CaCO3). This still leaves this number with 2 zeros knocked off the end, tonnes that are more mobile. This remainder can pass through the various carbon sinks and reservoirs as part of the carbon cycle and so is in some manner "available". This remaining carbon is distributed between a number of reservoirs, some living - for instance you represent a carbon reservoir approximately equivalent in size to a small bag of barbeque charcoal. Some is atmospheric, some is dissolved in water and some is buried beneath the earth.
Mass in tonnes of carbon x 109
(billions of tonnes of carbon)
|% of total|
|Marine plants (algae)||1.5||0.003|
|Dead organic matter (in soil and peat)||1600.0||3.08|
|Oil and gas||500.0||0.96|
|Dissolved in the oceans||38 000.0||73.2|
This distribution is rather surprising at first sight, notably because there is so much carbon dioxide contained dissolved in the oceans and relatively little is contained in the atmosphere. The atmosphere however is exceptionally important in that it is the transfer medium between the other sinks and while relatively little stays in the atmosphere a great deal passes through it.
The oceans are by far the largest sink of carbon as dissolved carbon dioxide. This is medium-term storage and is in a balance with atmospheric carbon dioxide, if atmospheric carbon dioxide is removed, it will replaced by some that was dissolved in the oceans, if large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere, much of it will be absorbed by the oceans. The vast majority of carbon dioxide released since the start of the industrial revolution is now held dissolved in the worlds oceans if this was not the case, the atmospheric levels would have risen far more than they even have.
It is difficult to appreciate numbers
like this in a relative manner by seeing them as a list,
so here is a graphical way of showing the data, numbers in billions of tonnes:
0.5 billion tonnes of carbon
Marine plants (algae)
1.5 billion tonnes of carbon
1.5 billion tonnes of carbon
Oil and gas
in soil and peat
Or, if you prefer, as a bar chart:
Picture credits, copyright pictures used by permission: Rainforest - carbon sink - Ben Sutherland, used under Creative Commons 2.0 license