Recycling Matter in Ecosystems

Article objectives

  • To define and give examples of biogeochemical cycles that recycle matter.
  • To describe the water cycle and the processes by which water changes state.
  • To summarize the organic and geological pathways of the carbon cycle.
  • To outline the nitrogen cycle and state the roles of bacteria in the cycle.
  • Unlike energy, elements are not lost and replaced as they pass through ecosystems. Instead, they are recycled repeatedly. All chemical elements that are needed by living things are recycled in ecosystems, including carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Water is also recycled.

    Biogeochemical Cycles

    A biogeochemical cycle is a closed loop through which a chemical element or water moves through ecosystems. In the term biogeochemical, bio- refers to biotic components and geo- to geological and other abiotic components. Chemicals cycle through both biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems. For example, an element might move from the atmosphere to ocean water, from ocean water to ocean organisms, and then back to the atmosphere to repeat the cycle.

    Elements or water may be held for various lengths of time by different components of a biogeochemical cycle. Components that hold elements or water for a relatively short period of time are called exchange pools. For example, the atmosphere is an exchange pool for water. It holds water for several days at the longest. This is a very short time compared with the thousands of years the deep ocean can hold water. The ocean is an example of a reservoir for water. Reservoirs are components of a geochemical cycle that hold elements or water for a relatively long period of time.

    Water Cycles

    Earth’s water is constantly in motion. Although the water on Earth is billions of years old, individual water molecules are always moving through the water cycle. The water cycle describes the continuous movement of water molecules on, above, and below Earth’s surface. It is shown in Figure 1. Like other biogeochemical cycles, there is no beginning or end to the water cycle. It just keeps repeating. During the cycle, water occurs in its three different states: gas (water vapor), liquid (water), and solid (ice). Processes involved in changes of state in the water cycle include evaporation, sublimation, and transpiration.

    Figure 1: This diagram of the water cycle shows where water is stored and the processes by which water moves through the cycle, including evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.

    Evaporation, Sublimation, and Transpiration

    The sun is the driving force behind the water cycle. It heats oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water, causing water to evaporate from the surface and enter the atmosphere as water vapor. Water in soil also evaporates easily. In addition, the sun heats ice and snow, causing it to turn directly into water vapor in the process of sublimation. Water also evaporates from the above-ground parts of plants. Transpiration is another process by which plants lose water. Transpiration occurs when stomata in leaves open to take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and lose water to the atmosphere in the process.

    The water cycle plays an important role in climate. For molecules of liquid water to change to water vapor, kinetic energy is required, or the energy of movement. As faster-moving molecules evaporate, the remaining molecules have lower average kinetic energy, and the temperature of ocean water thus decreases. The primary way that oceans slow global warming is by heat uptake which warms ocean water and removes some energy from the atmosphere.

    Condensation and Precipitation

    Rising air currents carry water vapor from all these sources into the atmosphere. As the water vapor rises higher into the atmosphere or is carried toward the poles by winds, the air becomes cooler. Cooler air cannot hold as much water vapor, so the water vapor condenses into tiny water droplets around particles in the air. The tiny water droplets form clouds.

    Air currents cause the tiny water droplets in clouds to collide and merge into larger droplets. When water droplets in clouds become large enough to fall, they become precipitation. Most precipitation falls back into the ocean. Precipitation that falls at high altitudes or near the poles can accumulate as ice caps and glaciers. These masses of ice can store frozen water for hundreds of years or longer.

    Infiltration and Runoff

    Rain that falls on land may either soak into the ground, which is called infiltration, or flow over the land as runoff. Snow that falls on land eventually melts, with the exception of snow that accumulates at high altitudes or near the poles. Like rain water, snowmelt can either infiltrate the ground or run off.

    Water that infiltrates the ground is called groundwater. Groundwater close to the surface can be taken up by plants. Alternatively, it may flow out of the ground as a spring or slowly seep from the ground into bodies of water such as ponds, lakes, or the ocean. Groundwater can also flow deeper underground. It may eventually reach an aquifer. An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing, permeable rock. Groundwater may be stored in an aquifer for thousands of years. Wells drilled into an aquifer can tap this underground water and pump it to the surface for human use.

    Runoff water from rain or snowmelt eventually flows into streams and rivers. The water is then carried to ponds, lakes, or the ocean. From these bodies of water, water molecules can evaporate to form water vapor and continue the cycle.

    Carbon Cycle

    Runoff, streams, and rivers can gradually dissolve carbon in rocks and carry it to the ocean. The ocean is a major reservoir for stored carbon. It is just one of four major reservoirs. The other three are the atmosphere, the biosphere, and organic sediments such as fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, including petroleum and coal, form from the remains of dead organisms. All of these reservoirs of carbon are interconnected by pathways of exchange in the carbon cycle, which is shown in Figure 2.

    Figure 2: This drawing of the carbon cycle shows the amounts of carbon stored in and exchanged between carbon reservoirs on land and in water. Another 70 million GtC of carbon may be stored in sedimentary rock. If this is true, it would make sedimentary rock the greatest reservoir of carbon on Earth.

    Carbon occurs in a various forms in different parts of the carbon cycle. Some of the different forms in which carbon appears are described in Table 1. Refer to the table as you read how carbon moves between reservoirs of the cycle.

    Table 1 Forms of Carbon in the Carbon Cycle: Carbon Dioxide, Gas, Calcium Carbonate, Solids
    KEY: C=Carbon, O=Oxygen, H=Hydrogen, Mg = Magnesium

    Form of CarbonChemical FormulaStateMain Reservoir
    Carbon Dioxide\(CO_2\)GasAtmosphere
    Carbonic Acid\(H_2 CO_3\)LiquidOcean
    Bicarbonate Ion\(HCO_3 ^-\)Liquid (dissolved ion)Ocean
    Organic CompoundsExamples: Glucose \(C_6 H_{12} O_6\), Methane \(CH_4\)Solid GasBiosphere, Organic Sediments (Fossil fuels)
    Other Carbon CompoundsExamples: Calcium Carbonate \(CaCO_3\), Calcium Magnesium Carbonate \(CaMg(CO_3) _2\)Solid SolidSedimentary Rock, Shells Sedimentary Rock

    Carbon in the Atmosphere

    In the atmosphere, carbon exists primarily as carbon dioxide (\(CO_2\)). Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere from several different sources, including those listed below. Most of the sources are also represented in Figure 2, and some are described in detail.

    • Living organisms release carbon dioxide as a byproduct of cellular respiration.
    • Carbon dioxide is given off when dead organisms and other organic materials decompose.
    • Burning organic material, such as fossil fuels, releases carbon dioxide.
    • When volcanoes erupt, they give off carbon dioxide that is stored in the mantle.
    • Carbon dioxide is released when limestone is heated during the production of cement.
    • Ocean water releases dissolved carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when water temperature rises.

    A much smaller amount of carbon in the atmosphere is present as methane gas (\(CH_4\)). Methane is released into the atmosphere when dead organisms and other organic matter decay in the absence of oxygen. It is produced by landfills, the mining of fossil fuels, and some types of agriculture.

    There are also several different ways that carbon leaves the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere when plants and other autotrophs take in carbon dioxide to make organic compounds during photosynthesis or chemosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also removed when ocean water cools and dissolves more carbon dioxide from the air. These processes are also represented in Figure 2.

    Because of human activities, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than in the past hundreds of thousands of years. Burning fossil fuels and producing concrete has released great quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Cutting forests and clearing land has also increased carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because these activities reduce the number of autotrophic organisms that use up carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. In addition, clearing often involves burning, which releases carbon dioxide that was previously stored in autotrophs.

    Carbon in Ocean Water

    Most carbon enters the ocean when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in ocean water. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water (\(H_2 O\)), it forms an acid called carbonic acid (\(H_2 CO_3\)). The reaction is given by the equation:

    $$CO_2 + H_2 O \leftrightarrow H_2 CO_3$$

    The double-headed arrow indicates that the reaction can occur in either direction, depending on the conditions and the amount of carbon dioxide present. For example, the reaction occurs more readily in the left-to-right direction in cold water. As a result, near the poles, where ocean water is cooler, more carbon dioxide is dissolved and there is more carbonic acid in the water. Although carbonic acid is a weak acid, it is an important regulator of the acid-base (pH) balance of ocean water.

    Carbonic acid, in turn, readily separates into hydrogen ions (\(H^+\)) and bicarbonate ions (\(HCO_3 ^−\)). This occurs in the following reaction:

    $$H_2 CO_3 \longrightarrow H^+ + HCO_3 ^−$$

    Due to these two reactions, most dissolved carbon dioxide in the ocean is in the form of bicarbonate ions. Another source of bicarbonate ions in ocean water is runoff. Flowing water erodes rocks containing carbon compounds such as calcium carbonate. This forms bicarbonate ions, which the runoff carries to streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean. Many of the bicarbonate ions in ocean water are moved by ocean currents into the deep ocean. Carbon can be held in this deep ocean reservoir as bicarbonate ions for thousands of years or more.

    Carbon in the Biosphere

    Bicarbonate ions near the surface of the ocean may be taken up by photosynthetic algae and bacteria that live near the surface. These and other autotrophic organisms use bicarbonate ions or other forms of carbon to synthesize organic compounds. Carbon is essential for life because it is the main ingredient of every type of organic compound. Organic compounds make up the cells and tissues of all organisms and keep organisms alive and functioning. Carbon enters all ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic, through autotrophs such as plants or algae. Autotrophs use carbon dioxide from the air, or bicarbonate ions from the water, to make organic compounds such as glucose. Heterotrophs consume the organic molecules and pass the carbon through food chains and webs.

    How does carbon cycle back to the atmosphere or ocean? All organisms release carbon dioxide as a byproduct of cellular respiration. Cellular respiration is the process by which cells oxidize glucose and produce carbon dioxide, water, and energy. Decomposers also release carbon dioxide when they break down dead organisms and other organic waste.

    In a balanced ecosystem, the amount of carbon used in photosynthesis and passed through the ecosystem is about the same as the amount given off in respiration and decomposition. This cycling of carbon between the atmosphere and organisms forms an organic pathway in the carbon cycle. Carbon can cycle quickly through this organic pathway, especially in aquatic ecosystems. In fact, during a given period of time, much more carbon is recycled through the organic pathway than through the geological pathway you will read about next.

    Carbon in Rocks and Sediments

    The geological pathway of the carbon cycle takes much longer than the organic pathway described above. In fact, it usually takes millions of years for carbon to cycle through the geological pathway. It involves processes such as rock formation, subduction, and volcanism.

    As stated previously, most carbon in ocean water is in the form of bicarbonate ions. Bicarbonate ions may bind with other ions, such as calcium ions (\(Ca^+\)) or magnesium ions (\(Mg^+\)), and form insoluble compounds. Because the compounds are insoluble, they precipitate out of water and gradually form sedimentary rock, such as limestone (calcium carbonate, \(CaCO_3\)) or dolomite [calcium magnesium carbonate \(CaMg(CO_3 )_2\).

    Dead organisms also settle to the bottom of the ocean. Many of them have shells containing calcium carbonate. Over millions of years, the pressure of additional layers of sediments gradually changes their calcium carbonate and other remaining organic compounds to carbon-containing sedimentary rock.

    During some periods in Earth’s history, very rich organic sediments were deposited. These deposits formed pockets of hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are organic compounds that contain only carbon and hydrogen. The hydrocarbons found in sediments are fossil fuels such as natural gas. The hydrocarbon methane is the chief component of natural gas.

    Carbon-containing rocks and sediments on the ocean floor gradually move toward the edges of the ocean due to a process called seafloor spreading. The rocks eventually reach cracks in the crust, where they are pulled down into the mantle. This process, called subduction, occurs at subduction zones. In the mantle, the rocks melt and their carbon is stored. When volcanoes erupt, they return some of the stored carbon in the mantle to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, a process known as volcanism. This brings the geological pathway of the carbon cycle full circle.

    Nitrogen Cycle

    The atmosphere is the largest reservoir of nitrogen on Earth. It consists of 78 percent nitrogen gas (\(N_2\)). The nitrogen cycle moves nitrogen through abiotic and biotic components of ecosystems. Figure 3 shows how nitrogen cycles through a terrestrial ecosystem. Nitrogen passes from the atmosphere into soil. Then it moves through several different organisms before returning to the atmosphere to complete the cycle. In aquatic ecosystems, nitrogen passes through a similar cycle.

    Figure 3: In a terrestrial ecosystem, the nitrogen cycle may include plants and consumers as well as several types of bacteria.

    Absorption of Nitrogen

    Plants and other producers use nitrogen to synthesize nitrogen-containing organic compounds. These include chlorophyll, proteins, and nucleic acids. Other organisms that consume producers make use of the nitrogen in these organic compounds. Plants absorb substances such as nitrogen from the soil through their root hairs. However, they cannot absorb nitrogen gas directly. They can absorb nitrogen only in the form of nitrogen containing ions, such as nitrate ions (\(NO_3 ^−\)).

    Nitrogen Fixation

    The process of converting nitrogen gas to nitrate ions that plants can absorb is called nitrogen fixation. It is carried out mainly by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which secrete enzymes needed for the process. Some nitrogen-fixing bacteria live in soil. Others live in the root nodules of legumes such as peas and beans. In aquatic ecosystems, some cyanobacteria are nitrogen fixing. They convert nitrogen gas to nitrate ions that algae and other aquatic producers can use.

    Nitrogen gas in the atmosphere can be converted to nitrates by several other means. One way is by the energy in lightning. Nitrogen is also converted to nitrates as a result of certain human activities. These include the production of fertilizers and explosives and the burning of fossil fuels. These human activities also create the gas nitrous oxide (\(N_2 O\)). The concentration of this gas in the atmosphere has tripled over the past hundred years as a result. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and other environmental problems.

    Ammonification and Nitrification

    After being used by plants and animals, nitrogen is released back into the environment. When decomposers break down organic remains and wastes, they release nitrogen in the form of ammonium ions (\(NH_4^−\)). This is called ammonification. It occurs in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In terrestrial ecosystems, some nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soil and root nodules also convert nitrogen gas directly into ammonium ions.

    Although some plants can absorb nitrogen in the form of ammonium ions, others cannot. In fact, ammonium ions may be toxic to some plants and other organisms. Certain soil bacteria, called nitrifying bacteria, convert ammonium ions to nitrites (\(NO_2 ^−\)). Other nitrifying bacteria convert the nitrites to nitrates, which plants can absorb. The process of converting ammonium ions to nitrites or nitrates is called nitrification.

    Denitrification and the Anammox Reaction

    Still other bacteria, called denitrifying bacteria, convert some of the nitrates in soil back into nitrogen gas in a process called denitrification. The process is the opposite of nitrogen fixation. Denitrification returns nitrogen gas back to the atmosphere, where it can continue the nitrogen cycle.

    In the ocean, another reaction occurs to cycle nitrogen back to nitrogen gas in the atmosphere. The reaction, called the anammox reaction, is enabled by certain bacteria in the water. In the reaction, ammonium and nitrite ions combine to form water and nitrogen gas. This is shown by the equation:

    $$NH_4 ^+ + NO_2 ^- \longrightarrow N_2 + 2H_2 O$$

    The anammox reaction may contribute up to half of the nitrogen gas released into the atmosphere by the ocean. The reaction may also significantly limit production in ocean ecosystems by removing nitrogen compounds that are needed by aquatic producers and other organisms.

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