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NSW Government Education and Communities Sites2See

The carbon cycle and us

What is the carbon cycle?

Carbon is the chemical basis of all known life. It exists in forms as rare as diamond and more commonly as coal, and bonded with other atoms, in liquid and vapour forms. Humans are partly made up of carbon; after oxygen, carbon is the second most abundant element by mass in our bodies.

The carbon cycle is the story both global and molecular, of how carbon atoms are transferred in various forms, through the atmosphere, oceans, plants, animals, soils and sediments.

An artist's representation of the carbon dioxide molecule with a black central (carbon) sphere adjoined each side by a red (oxygen) sphere

CO2 molecule by Ingvald Straume CC BY-SA 3.0

Read an introduction to the carbon cycle by the ABC’s Bernie Hobbs, with an illustration of both ‘quick’ and ‘slow’ carbon cycles. NASA’s earth observatory also has an illustrated primer.

Teaching the carbon cycle

Find teacher-reviewed videos on the carbon cycle at NeoK12. The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness network has digital resources for teachers on the carbon cycle (choose by grade).

Animating the cycle

Use an animation to illustrate steps of the carbon cycle in a simplified form, a small video, or a more detailed illustration from the site C02 CRC. Use another simple animation of each of the contributing parts of the cycle.

NASA diagram of the carbon cycle. No copyright. Click for a larger view.

NASA diagram of the carbon cycle

View a larger version with an explanation.

Resources for Secondary

Teach engineering has a lesson on carbon cycles, and Cycles of the Earth and Atmosphere has an excercise to explore the carbon cycle and be able to indentify carbon sources, sinks and release agents. The US National Science Foundation has an interactive tutorial with questions and answers.

Carbon and climate change

The Carbon Cycle Cartoon has a very clear explanation of the carbon cycle and humans' contribution to it.

Explore a multimedia gallery and find units of work for Primary at the CSIRO website Carbon Kids. Find Secondary resources on the global carbon cycle and greenhouse gases at C02 CRC.

Artist impression of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in orbit above earth

NASA/JPL image. Artist concept of the planned Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2.

In 2013 NASA plans to launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, to study atmospheric carbon.

Investigate the pros and cons of introducing a price on carbon. David Suziki discusses the difference between a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system. Find related resources with Sites2See: Exploring energy for Secondary and What is climate change?

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