Earth's Biogeochemical Cycles Slipping Into Disarray


The conductor walks on to the stage and mounts the podium with applause from the crowd.  He bows to the audience, then turns to his orchestra and, with one fluid motion pulls music from the vast expanse of silence. Each musician moves, almost mechanically, in perfect time, in perfect concert. The violin section becomes one great body, no longer individual musicians. Together, as one, the orchestra ebbs and flows in crescendo and decrescendo. Melody. Harmony. Symphony.

But imagine with me for a moment that one violinist fell out of rhythm. The once fluid sound drips through the cracks of disarray. From there, another violinist. Next a cellist. Soon the entire string section has lost rhythm. The conductor struggles to pull the string section into concert with the rest of the orchestra. However, the chaos of the string section has spread to the brass and to the woodwind sections. Soon the entire orchestra is in conflict.

The earth has been performing for a long time. But, like the orchestra, the earth is a combination of sections. These sections are often called cycles – biogeochemical cycles, without which the earth wouldn’t function as a habitat for life.

For a long time, however, scientists, biogeochemists, have studied the cycles in isolation. They knew that the water cycle was important; but it wasn’t studied in harmony with the other sections, such as the nitrogen cycle.

“Biogeochemical cycles don’t exist in isolation, however,” says Tim Killeen, NSF assistant director for geosciences. “There is no nitrogen cycle without a carbon cycle, a hydrogen cycle, an oxygen cycle, and even cycles of trace metals such as iron.” Scientists are discovering that the cycles are dependent upon one another. In other words, they are discovering that the orchestra doesn’t consist only of violins.

But like our hypothetical orchestra, the earths cycles are slipping into disarray. And global warming is a likely contributer. And now scientists are saying that it is essnetial to study couple biogeochemical cycles. Studying how cycles interact will “shed light on questions such as the success of wetland restoration and the status of aquatic food webs,” said said Jon Cole, a biogeochemist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

Different habitats have different chemical compositions. While oceans are wet and salty, the atmosphere has a fairly constant chemical composition – roughly 79 percent nitrogen, 20 percent oxygen, and a 1 percent mix of other gases like water, carbon dioxide, and methane.

And within those habitats, “seemingly subtle chemical changes may have large effects,” said Cole.

“Consider that global climate change is caused by increases in carbon dioxide and methane, gases which occupy less than ½ of one percent of the atmosphere. Now more than ever, we need a comprehensive view of Earth’s biogeochemical cycles.”

Just as it is vital for a conductor or composer to understand how a cello will sound paired with a flute and a trombone, it is imperative to understand how forests interact with the atmosphere and how the atmosphere interacts with the water cycle. In order to create a masterpiece, the harmonies must be right, the balances must be right and the rhythm must be right. Thus it is with the earth. We, however, didn’t write this symphony; we are simply guest conductors. We have, whether intentional or no, introduced a measure of disarray into the once harmonious symphony; and now it is our responsibility to help all sections fall into rhythm once more.

Source: Science Daily

Image Credit: USGS

6 thoughts on “Earth's Biogeochemical Cycles Slipping Into Disarray”

  1. California Reader

    Thanks for this posting. I have utilized your link to the Science Daily article and have enjoyed it very much. A good reference for this blog site.

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