Carbon is Nature's favorite Lego piece. Nature uses carbon in virtually all forms of life on Earth. Fortunately carbon is one of the most abundant elements on our planet so there is plenty of life to be lived. Like all matter though, carbon cannot be created nor destroyed. So what happens to the carbon when something dies? The answer is the carbon cycle.
The Carbon Cycle
There is a fixed amount of carbon on the planet. It's found in both living and non-living things. We call these living carbon-containing things organic. The non-living objects are called inorganic and are things like rocks, shells, the atmosphere, and oceans. Carbon is pretty much everywhere.
One of the most important forms of carbon is carbon dioxide (CO2). It's a vital and essential component of our atmosphere. It prevents heat from escaping Earth and warms up the atmosphere. For this reason CO2 is called a greenhouse gas because it makes Earth act like a giant greenhouse.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Want to see a greenhouse? Click here.
How does carbon get from point A to point B? How does it go from being inside an organic thing to an inorganic thing? Carbon moves through the Earth's system from living to non-living things in many different ways. In a sense, the Earth has a fantastic recycling program set up for its favorite element. This natural recycling program is the carbon cycle.
The Carbon Cycle
Basically the Earth has tons of different way to push carbon from one system to another. These methods include photosynthesis, animal respiration, plant respiration, and the decay process. There are tons of options in Nature.
Here's an example. Plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make their own food and grow. The carbon is now a part of the plant. At some point the plant will die and decay (or get eaten by another organism). Plants that die and are buried may turn into fossil fuels like coal or natural gas. We humans, in turn, burn that fossil fuel and put the carbon back into the atmosphere. Talk about coming full circle.