6.5.6. Matter cycles in the ecosystem

Matter cannot be created or destroyed in a chemical reaction – or a biological reaction, for that matter. This means that elements are simply incorporated into different compounds, which are then transformed into other compounds, and, only if energy is available to drive the reactions, they may be changed to different compounds, probably repeating the process.

In other words, elements are recycled in Nature and re-used by living organisms. In many cases, living organisms use these elements so much that they cannot get enough of them elements – they are thus a limiting factor for growth – and so the rate at which they are recycled is critical. This is especially true for plants, but also for the whole food chain of organisms which depend on them. An ecosystem consists of an environment together with all the naturally occurring organisms in it.
The elements and compounds which are the most essential for the growth of living organisms are said to have their own (interlinked) cycles, but similar cycles exist for elements of “lesser” importance. These are transformation processes, in that chemical elements are moved from one compound to another.

Water cycle

The water cycle, also known as the hydrologic cycle or the H2O cycle, describes the continuous movement of water on, above and below the surface of the Earth. Although the balance of water on Earth remains fairly constant over time, individual water molecules can come and go, in and out of the atmosphere. 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, runoff, and subsurface flow. In so doing, the water goes through different phases: liquid, solid (ice), and gas (vapor).

The water cycle involves the exchange of energy, which leads totemperature changes. For instance, 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. By transferring water from one reservoir to another, the water cycle purifies water, replenishes the land with freshwater, and transports minerals to different parts of the globe. It is also involved in reshaping the geological features of the Earth, through such processes as erosion and sedimentation. Finally, the water cycle figures significantly in the maintenance of life and ecosystems.

Carbon cycle

ccycle carbon_cycle_diagram_doe_900x600The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, andatmosphere of the Earth. Along with the nitrogen cycle and the water cycle, the carbon cycle comprises a sequence of events that are key to making the Earth capable of sustaining life; it describes the movement of carbon as it is recycled and reused throughout the biosphere.

The global carbon budget is the balance of the exchanges (incomes and losses) of carbon between the carbon reservoirs or between one specific loop (e.g., atmosphere ↔ biosphere) of the carbon cycle. An examination of the carbon budget of a pool or reservoir can provide information about whether the pool or reservoir is functioning as a source or sink for carbon dioxide. The carbon cycle was initially discovered by Joseph Priestley andAntoine Lavoisier, and popularized by Humphry Davy.

All living things are made of carbon. Carbon is also a part of the ocean, air, and even rocks. Because the Earth is a dynamic place, carbon does not stay still. It is on the move!

In the atmosphere, carbon is attached to some oxygen in a gas called carbon dioxide.

Plants use carbon dioxide and sunlight to make their own food and grow. The carbon becomes part of the plant. Plants that die and are buried may turn into fossil fuels made of carbon like coal and oil over millions of years. When humans burn fossil fuels, most of the carbon quickly enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and traps heat in the atmosphere. Without it and other greenhouse gases, Earth would be a frozen world. But humans have burned so much fuel that there is about 30% more carbon dioxide in the air today than there was about 150 years ago, and Earth is becoming a warmer place. In fact, ice cores show us that there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has been in the last 420,000 years.

Nitrogen Cycle

The nitrogen cycle is the process by which nitrogen is converted between its various chemical forms. This transformation can be carried out through both biological and physical processes. Important processes in the nitrogen cycle include fixation, ammonification, nitrification, and denitrification. The majority ofEarth’s atmosphere (78%) is nitrogen, making it the largest pool 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.

A 2011 study found that nitrogen from rocks may also be a significant source of nitrogen, that had not previously been included in most calculations and statistics.

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