Biogeochemical cycle

In ecology and Earth science, a biogeochemical cycle or substance turnover or cycling of substances is a pathway by which a chemical substance moves through biotic (biosphere) and abiotic (lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere) compartments of Earth. There are biogeochemical cycles for the chemical elements calcium, carbon, hydrogen, mercury, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, selenium, and sulfur; molecular cycles for water and silica; macroscopic cycles such as the rock cycle; as well as human-induced cycles for synthetic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). In some cycles there are reservoirs where a substance remains for a long period of time (such as an ocean or lake for water).

An illustration of the oceanic whale pump showing how whales cycle nutrients through the water column


Plagiomnium affine laminazellen.jpeg
Chloroplasts conduct photosynthesis and are found in plant cells and other eukaryotic organisms. These are Chloroplasts visible in the cells of Plagiomnium affine — Many-fruited Thyme-moss.

Ecological systems (ecosystems) have many biogeochemical cycles operating as a part of the system, for example the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, etc. All chemical elements occurring in organisms are part of biogeochemical cycles. In addition to being a part of living organisms, these chemical elements also cycle through abiotic factors of ecosystems such as water (hydrosphere), land (lithosphere), and/or the air (atmosphere).[1]

The living factors of the planet can be referred to collectively as the biosphere. All the nutrients—such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur—used in ecosystems by living organisms are a part of a closed system; therefore, these chemicals are recycled instead of being lost and replenished constantly such as in an open system.[1]

The flow of energy in an ecosystem is an open system; the sun constantly gives the planet energy in the form of light while it is eventually used and lost in the form of heat throughout the trophic levels of a food web. Carbon is used to make carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, the major sources of food energy. These compounds are oxidized to release carbon dioxide, which can be captured by plants to make organic compounds. The chemical reaction is powered by the light energy of the sun.

Sunlight is required to combine carbon with hydrogen and oxygen into an energy source, but ecosystems in the deep sea, where no sunlight can penetrate, obtain energy from sulfur. Hydrogen sulfide near hydrothermal vents can be utilized by organisms such as the giant tube worm. In the sulfur cycle, sulfur can be forever recycled as a source of energy. Energy can be released through the oxidation and reduction of sulfur compounds (e.g., oxidizing elemental sulfur to sulfite and then to sulfate).

Although the Earth constantly receives energy from the sun, its chemical composition is essentially fixed, as additional matter is only occasionally added by meteorites. Because this chemical composition is not replenished like energy, all processes that depend on these chemicals must be recycled. These cycles include both the living biosphere and the nonliving lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere.


Coal anthracite
Coal is a reservoir of carbon.

The chemicals are sometimes held for long periods of time in one place. This place is called a reservoir, which, for example, includes such things as coal deposits that are storing carbon for a long period of time.[2] When chemicals are held for only short periods of time, they are being held in exchange pools. Examples of exchange pools include plants and animals.[2]

Plants and animals utilize carbon to produce carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, which can then be used to build their internal structures or to obtain energy. Plants and animals temporarily use carbon in their systems and then release it back into the air or surrounding medium. Generally, reservoirs are abiotic factors whereas exchange pools are biotic factors. Carbon is held for a relatively short time in plants and animals in comparison to coal deposits. The amount of time that a chemical is held in one place is called its residence time.[2]

Important cycles

The most well-known and important biogeochemical cycles are shown below:

There are many biogeochemical cycles that are currently being studied for the first time as climate change and human impacts are drastically changing the speed, intensity, and balance of these relatively unknown cycles. These newly studied biogeochemical cycles include

Biogeochemical cycles always involve hot equilibrium states: a balance in the cycling of the element between compartments. However, overall balance may involve compartments distributed on a global scale.

As biogeochemical cycles describe the movements of substances on the entire globe, the study of these is inherently multidisciplinary. The carbon cycle may be related to research in ecology and atmospheric sciences.[5] Biochemical dynamics would also be related to the fields of geology and pedology.[6]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Biogeochemical Cycles". The Environmental Literacy Council. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Baedke, Steve J.; Fichter, Lynn S. "Biogeochemical Cycles: Carbon Cycle". Supplimental Lecture Notes for Geol 398. James Madison University. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  3. ^ "Mercury Cycling in the Environment". Wisconsin Water Science Center. United States Geological Survey. 10 January 2013. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  4. ^ Organic contaminants that leave traces : sources, transport and fate. Ifremer. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9782759200139.
  5. ^ McGuire, 1A. D.; Lukina, N. V. (2007). "Biogeochemical cycles" (PDF). In Groisman, P.; Bartalev, S. A.; NEESPI Science Plan Development Team (eds.). Northern Eurasia earth science partnership initiative (NEESPI), Science plan overview. Global Planetary Change. 56. pp. 215–234. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  6. ^ "Distributed Active Archive Center for Biogeochemical Dynamics". Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Retrieved 20 November 2017.

Further reading

  • Butcher, Samuel S., ed. (1993). Global biogeochemical cycles. London: Academic Press. ISBN 9780080954707.
  • Exley, C (15 September 2003). "A biogeochemical cycle for aluminium?". Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. 97 (1): 1–7. doi:10.1016/S0162-0134(03)00274-5.
  • Jacobson, Michael C.; Charlson, Robert J.; Rodhe, Henning; Orians, Gordon H. (2000). Earth system science from biogeochemical cycles to global change (2nd ed.). San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press. ISBN 9780080530642.
  • Palmeri, Luca; Barausse, Alberto; Jorgensen, Sven Erik (2013). "12. Biogeochemical cycles". Ecological processes handbook. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781466558489.
Actinorhizal plant

Actinorhizal plants are a group of angiosperms characterized by their ability to form a symbiosis with the nitrogen fixing actinobacteria Frankia. This association leads to the formation of nitrogen-fixing root nodules.

Carbon cycle

The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere of the Earth. Carbon is the main component of biological compounds as well as a major component of many minerals such as limestone. Along with the nitrogen cycle and the water cycle, the carbon cycle comprises a sequence of events that are key to make Earth capable of sustaining life. It describes the movement of carbon as it is recycled and reused throughout the biosphere, as well as long-term processes of carbon sequestration to and release from carbon sinks.

The carbon cycle was discovered by Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, and popularized by Humphry Davy.

Carbon cycle re-balancing

The carbon cycle is the process by which carbon is exchanged between the four reservoirs of carbon: the biosphere, the earth, the air and water. Exchanges take place in several ways, including respiration, transpiration, combustion, and decomposition. The carbon balance, or carbon budget, is the balance of exchange between the four reservoirs.

Debate about 're-balancing the carbon cycle' arises from a concern that use of fossil fuels, which has accelerated since the start of the industrial revolution, has caused carbon to accumulate in the atmosphere. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are estimated to have risen from 280 ppm to 418 ppm(And rising) since 1800 and this is linked to global warming. It is therefore argued that the carbon cycle should be re-balanced by reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

'Carbon cycle re-balancing' is a useful name for a group of environmental policies listed below. The name gives a specific reason for adopting these policies. Related names, including pleas for sustainable development and participation in the green movement are politics-based rather than science-based.

Carbon offset - for example by photosynthesis (e.g. in new forests)

Carbon capture and storage - extraction of CO2 and placing it underground or underwater

Carbon capture and transformation - extraction of CO2 and reacting it with hydrogen via renewable energy electrolysis to create methane as an energy store/carrier. Low to neutral CO2 cycle

Sustainable energy - a shift from fossil fuels energy to wind power and solar power

Nuclear power - as an alternative to fossil fuels

Sustainable design - to reduce inputs and outputs of energy

Sustainable transport - to reduce reliance on fossil fuelsBurning domestic refuse to generate power can be promoted as a recycling, and therefore sustainable, policy. But from a carbon cycle re-balancing standpoint it is better to compost as much domestic refuse as possible.

Carbon source

In biology, carbon source refers to the molecules used by an organism as the source of carbon for building its biomass.. A carbon source can be an organic compound or an inorganic compound. Heterotrophs needs organic compounds as source of carbon and source of energy, while autotrophs can use inorganic compounds as carbon source and an abiotic sources of energy, as light (photoautotrophs) or inorganic chemical energy (chemolithotrophs) . The biological use of carbon is part carbon cycle, where it starts from an inorganic source of carbon, such as carbon dioxide, that passes through the process of carbon fixation.

Chemical cycling

Chemical cycling describes systems of repeated circulation of chemicals between other compounds, states and materials, and back to their original state, that occurs in space, and on many objects in space including the Earth. Active chemical cycling is known to occur in stars, many planets and natural satellites.

Chemical cycling plays a large role in sustaining planetary atmospheres, liquids and biological processes and can greatly influence weather and climate. Some chemical cycles release renewable energy, others may give rise to complex chemical reactions, organic compounds and prebiotic chemistry. On terrestrial bodies such as the Earth, chemical cycles involving the lithosphere are known as geochemical cycles. Ongoing geochemical cycles are one of the main attributes of geologically active worlds. A chemical cycle involving a biosphere is known as a biogeochemical cycle.

Chemical oceanography

Chemical oceanography is the study of ocean chemistry: the behavior of the chemical elements within the Earth's oceans. The ocean is unique in that it contains - in greater or lesser quantities - nearly every naturally occurring element in the periodic table.

Much of chemical oceanography describes the cycling of these elements both within the ocean and with the other spheres of the Earth system (see biogeochemical cycle). These cycles are usually characterized as quantitative fluxes between constituent reservoirs defined within the ocean system and as residence times within the ocean. Of particular global and climatic significance are the cycles of the biologically active elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus as well as those of some important trace elements such as iron.

Another important area of study in chemical oceanography is the behaviour of isotopes (see isotope geochemistry) and how they can be used as tracers of past and present oceanographic and climatic processes. For example, the incidence of 18O (the heavy isotope of oxygen) can be used as an indicator of polar ice sheet extent, and boron isotopes are key indicators of the pH and CO2 content of oceans in the geologic past.


Ferrallitisation is the process in which rock is changed into a soil consisting of clay (kaolinite) and sesquioxides, in the form of hydrated oxides of iron and aluminium. In humid tropical areas, with consistently high temperatures and rainfall for all or most of the year, chemical weathering rapidly breaks down the rock. This at first produces clays which later also break down to form silica. The silica is removed by leaching and the sesquioxides of iron and aluminium remain, giving the characteristic red colour of many tropical soils. Ferrallitisation is the reverse of podsolisation, where silica remains and the iron and aluminum are removed. In tropical rain forests with rain throughout the year, ferrallitic soils develop. In savanna areas, with altering dry and wet climates, ferruginous soils occur.

Forest floor

The forest floor, also called detritus, duff and the O horizon, is one of the most distinctive features of a forest ecosystem. It mainly consists of shed vegetative parts, such as leaves, branches, bark, and stems, existing in various stages of decomposition above the soil surface. Although principally composed of non-living organic material, the forest floor also teems with a wide variety of fauna and flora. It is one of the richest components of the ecosystem from the standpoint of biodiversity because of the large number of decomposers and predators present, mostly belonging to invertebrates, fungi, algae, bacteria, and archaea. Certain (adapted) plants may be more apparent in tropical forests, where rates of metabolism and species diversity are much higher than in colder climates.

The major compartments for the storage of organic matter and nutrients within systems are the living vegetation, forest floor, and soil. The forest floor serves as a bridge between the above ground living vegetation and the soil, and it is a crucial component in nutrient transfer through the biogeochemical cycle. Much of the energy and carbon fixed by forests is periodically added to the forest floor through litterfall, and a substantial portion of the nutrient requirements of forest ecosystems is supplied by decomposition of organic matter in the forest floor and soil surface. The sustained productivity of forests is closely linked with the decomposition of shed plant parts, particularly the nutrient-rich foliage. The forest floor is also an important fuel source in forest fires.

Hydrogen cycle

The hydrogen cycle consists of hydrogen exchanges between biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) sources and sinks of hydrogen-containing compounds.

Hydrogen (H) is the most abundant element in the universe. On Earth, common H-containing inorganic molecules include water (H2O), hydrogen gas (H2), methane (CH4), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and ammonia (NH3). Many organic compounds also contain H atoms, such as hydrocarbons and organic matter. Given the ubiquity of hydrogen atoms in inorganic and organic chemical compounds, the hydrogen cycle is focused on molecular hydrogen, H2.

Hydrogen gas can be produced naturally through rock-water interactions or as a byproduct of microbial metabolisms. Free H2 can then be consumed by other microbes, oxidized photochemically in the atmosphere, or lost to space. Hydrogen is also thought to be an important reactant in pre-biotic chemistry and the early evolution of life on Earth, and potentially elsewhere in our solar system.

Mercury cycle

The mercury cycle is a biogeochemical cycle influenced by natural and anthropogenic processes that transform mercury through multiple chemical forms and environments.

Mercury is present in the Earth's crust and in various forms on the Earth’s surface. It can be elemental, inorganic, or organic. Mercury exists in three oxidation states: 0 (elemental mercury), I (mercurous mercury), and II (mercuric mercury).

Mercury emissions to the atmosphere can be primary sources, which release mercury from the lithosphere, or secondary sources, which exchange mercury between surface reservoirs. Annually, over 5000 Mg of mercury is released to the atmosphere by primary emissions and secondary re-emissions.

Nitrogen cycle

The nitrogen cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which nitrogen is converted into multiple chemical forms as it circulates among atmosphere, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems. The conversion of nitrogen can be carried out through both biological and physical processes. Important processes in the nitrogen cycle include fixation, ammonification, nitrification, and denitrification. The majority of Earth's atmosphere (78%) is atmosphere nitrogen, making it the largest source of nitrogen. However, atmospheric nitrogen has limited availability for biological use, leading to a scarcity of usable nitrogen in many types of ecosystems.

The nitrogen cycle is of particular interest to ecologists because nitrogen availability can affect the rate of key ecosystem processes, including primary production and decomposition. Human activities such as fossil fuel combustion, use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers, and release of nitrogen in wastewater have dramatically altered the global nitrogen cycle. Human modification of global nitrogen cycle can negatively affect the natural environment system and also human health.

Oxygen cycle

The oxygen cycle is the biogeochemical transitions of oxygen atoms between different oxidation states in ions, oxides, and molecules through redox reactions within and between the spheres/reservoirs of the planet Earth. The word oxygen in the literature typically refers to the most common oxygen allotrope, elemental/diatomic oxygen (O2), as it is a common product or reactant of many biogeochemical redox reactions within the cycle. Processes within the oxygen cycle are considered to be biological or geological and are evaluated as either a source (O2 production) or sink (O2 consumption).

Ozone–oxygen cycle

The ozone–oxygen cycle is the process by which ozone is continually regenerated in Earth's stratosphere, converting ultraviolet radiation (UV) into heat. In 1930 Sydney Chapman resolved the chemistry involved. The process is commonly called the Chapman cycle by atmospheric scientists.

Most of the ozone production occurs in the tropical upper stratosphere and mesosphere. The total mass of ozone produced per day over the globe is about 400 million metric tons. The global mass of ozone is relatively constant at about 3 billion metric tons, meaning the Sun produces about 12% of the ozone layer each day.

Phosphorus cycle

The phosphorus cycle is the biogeochemical cycle that describes the movement of phosphorus through the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Unlike many other biogeochemical cycles, the atmosphere does not play a significant role in the movement of phosphorus, because phosphorus and phosphorus-based compounds are usually solids at the typical ranges of temperature and pressure found on Earth. The production of phosphine gas occurs in only specialized, local conditions. Therefore, the phosphorus cycle should be viewed from whole Earth system and then specifically focused on the cycle in terrestrial and aquatic systems.

On the land, phosphorus gradually becomes less available to plants over thousands of years, since it is slowly lost in runoff. Low concentration of phosphorus in soils reduces plant growth, and slows soil microbial growth - as shown in studies of soil microbial biomass. Soil microorganisms act as both sinks and sources of available phosphorus in the biogeochemical cycle. Locally, transformations of phosphorus are chemical, biological and microbiological: the major long-term transfers in the global cycle, however, are driven by tectonic movements in geologic time.Humans have caused major changes to the global phosphorus cycle through shipping of phosphorus minerals, and use of phosphorus fertilizer, and also the shipping of food from farms to cities, where it is lost as effluent.

Reactive nitrogen

Reactive nitrogen ("Nr") is a term used for a variety of nitrogen compounds that support growth directly or indirectly. Representative species include the gases nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3), nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as the anion nitrate (NO3−). Most of these species are the result of intensive farming, especially the (mis)use of fertilizers. Although required for life, nitrogen is stored in the biosphere in an unreactive ("unfixed") form N2, which supports only a few life forms. Reactive nitrogen is however "fixed" and is readily converted into protein, which supports life, leading to depletion of oxygen in fresh waters by eutrophication. Nr is removed from the biosphere via Denitrification.

Rock cycle

The rock cycle is a basic concept in geology that describes transitions through geologic time among the three main rock types: sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous. Each rock type is altered when it is forced out of its equilibrium conditions. For example, an igneous rock such as basalt may break down and dissolve when exposed to the atmosphere, or melt as it is subducted under a continent. Due to the driving forces of the rock cycle, plate tectonics and the water cycle, rocks do not remain in equilibrium and change as they encounter new environments. The rock cycle explains how the three rock types are related to each other, and how processes change from one type to another over time. This cyclical aspect makes rock change a geologic cycle and, on planets containing life, a biogeochemical cycle.

Selenium cycle

The selenium cycle is a biological cycle of selenium similar to the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. Within the cycle, there are organisms which reduce the most oxidized form of the element and different organisms complete the cycle by oxidizing the reduced element to the initial state.

In the selenium cycle it has been found that bacteria, fungi, and plants, especially species of Astragalus, metabolize the most oxidized forms of selenium, selenate or selenite, to selenide. It is also thought that microorganisms may be able to oxidize selenium of valence zero to selenium of valence +6.

Evidence for a selenium cycle is found through the study of selenium accumulator plants. These plants are found in semi-arid, seleniferous soils. The plants biosynthesize forms of organic selenium compounds and release the compounds into the soil when they decay. If the compounds were not oxidized, then an increase in organic selenium would be seen, but selenium in these areas is mainly inorganic.

Silica cycle

The silica cycle is the biogeochemical cycle in which silica is transported between the Earth's systems. Opal silica (SiO2) is a chemical compound of silicon, and is also called silicon dioxide. Silicon is considered a bioessential element and is one of the most abundant elements on Earth. The silica cycle has significant overlap with the carbon cycle (see Carbonate-Silicate cycle) and plays an important role in the sequestration of carbon through continental weathering, biogenic export and burial as oozes on geologic timescales.

Water cycle

The water cycle, also known as the hydrologic cycle or the hydrological cycle, describes the continuous movement of water on, above and below the surface of the Earth. The mass of water on Earth remains fairly constant over time but the partitioning of the water into the major reservoirs of ice, fresh water, saline water and atmospheric water is variable depending on a wide range of climatic variables. The water moves from one reservoir to another, such as from river to ocean, or from the ocean to the atmosphere, by the physical processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, surface runoff, and subsurface flow. In doing so, the water goes through different forms: liquid, solid (ice) and vapor.

The water cycle involves the exchange of energy, which leads to temperature changes. When water evaporates, it takes up energy from its surroundings and cools the environment. When it condenses, it releases energy and warms the environment. These heat exchanges influence climate.

The evaporative phase of the cycle purifies water which then replenishes the land with freshwater. The flow of liquid water and ice transports minerals across the globe. It is also involved in reshaping the geological features of the Earth, through processes including erosion and sedimentation. The water cycle is also essential for the maintenance of most life and ecosystems on the planet.

Biogeochemical cycles
Research groups
Related topics
Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components


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