EarthLabs > Climate and the Carbon Cycle: Unit Overview > Lab 1: Living in a Carbon World

Living in a Carbon World

Introduction: A Carbon Journey

Carbon Molecule. Source: WikiCommons
Look around you. Can you see the carbon? Carbon can exist in its pure form, such as a diamond, or in the millions of different kinds of carbon compounds scientists have currently identified. Carbon can be found in all four spheres of the Earth System - the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, the geosphere, and the biosphere. In the biosphere, chemical compounds that contain carbon are the "chemical scaffolds" upon which all life is built and is why carbon is sometimes referred to as the "backbone of life." We also use the carbon from wood to build and heat our homes. Carbon is responsible for combustion in the gas tanks of our cars and in the muscles of our bodies. Yet, this small, six-proton atomic element, which is central to life and gives us fuel for energy, is also contributing to climate change.

Consider the image of a terrestrial and ocean carbon cycle below. Can you identify where carbon exists in these two carbon cycles? Can carbon move back and forth between the terrestrial and ocean carbon cycle? How? What if a change happens in one part of the carbon cycle? How will other parts of the terrestrial and ocean carbon cycle change? These are a few of the important questions you will explore as you work your way through this module.

Because understanding the carbon cycle is key to understanding climate change, many scientists are trying to understand how carbon moves through the carbon cycle. Throughout the module, you will have multiple opportunities to observe scientists doing their research and will have the opportunity to conduct your own research.

You can begin your carbon journey by watching the NASA video Keeping Up with Carbon.


Share your list of carbon facts from the NASA video with your classmates. How do your "pre- and post-viewing" lists compare? What three items on the list do you think are the most important to understand about living in a carbon world? Explain why you chose them.

In Part A, you will trace the pathway of carbon from the atmosphere into plants and then into food webs and soil. Next, you carry out a controlled two-week hydroponic plant growth experiment that lets you model the role of trees in storing carbon (also called sequestering carbon) and the environmental factors that might limit that process.

In Part B, you will learn about carbon as an element. Using a ball-and-stick carbon molecule kit and 3-D structures of carbon compounds, you will demonstrate how carbon can bond with other atoms and create many different types of carbon compounds.

After completing this investigation, you should be able to:

Keeping Track of What You Learn

Throughout these labs, you will find two kinds of questions.

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