One of my friends told me quite seriously that Gaia had evolved humans to burn the fossil fuels and thus stop the earth running out of CO2.

Leaving aside the obvious nonsense it did raise an interesting question, what stops us running out of CO2? Apart from volcanism are there any processes that return carbon captured in fossil fuels and limestone to the atmosphere? Is it plausible that the planet could run so low on atmospheric carbon that plants couldn't photosynthesize?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Aug 9, 2021 at 11:35

2 Answers 2


The answer is The Carbon Cycle, which includes carbon cycling between atmosphere and oceans, vegetation and soils ensure the Earth does not run out. Volcanoes add very little in proportion to Plant Respiration or Soil Decomposition or Ocean Loss (or even fossil fuel burning) - but unlike those, volcanic CO2 (and similarly, fossil fuel CO2) is not accompanied by processes like Photosynthesis, Litterfall or Ocean Uptake that draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. However there is some ongoing loss of carbon to Burial to Sediments.

Without the fossil fuel burning the fluxes (flows) were close to being in equilibrium, without ongoing consumption and enduring loss of atmospheric CO2 -
Global Carbon Cycle

  • $\begingroup$ Hi thanks for the answer, I'm not sure that it doesn't show that over millions of years without human action the carbon isn't all eventually trapped in the earths crust? $\endgroup$
    – dibs487
    Jul 26, 2021 at 7:20
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The diagram doesn't show everything - it is the "fast" carbon cycle, where most of the action is. The slow or long carbon cycle involves slower cycling in both directions between atmosphere and oceans and Earth' crust but the total flows are much smaller than the fast carbon cycle above - 10 to 100 million metric tons of carbon per year versus flows hundreds to thousands times greater than that. More info here - earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle/page2.php $\endgroup$
    – Ken Fabian
    Jul 28, 2021 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ Great, thanks the slow carbon cycle is the answer I was looking for. I was happy with the everyday carbon cycle but didn't understand how once carbon was locked in limestone it ever returned. Would you mind editing your answer to be more specifically about the slow carbon cycle? $\endgroup$
    – dibs487
    Jul 28, 2021 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ animals can also produce carbon dioxide apart from humans mining it from the crust, if you leave out mining you get biological inhaling and exhaling, which will keep the carbon cycle alive. $\endgroup$
    – Tardy
    Jul 28, 2021 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ Ken Fabian. But see that 100.000.000 in Earth'sCrust. Earth's Crust is the higgest reservoir that has been storing CO2 for my $\endgroup$
    – user20559
    Aug 8, 2021 at 8:02

Phanerozoic CO2 atmospheric levels:

enter image description here

Biosphere has been consuming CO2 and storing it in the lithosphere since the Cambrian explosion.

The cyclic pattern is related with the tectonic cycles, named the Wilson Cycle, wich has formed two super continents during Phanerozoic period: Rodinia and Pangea.

enter image description here

When a super continent breaks, a new ocean is formed and after Cambrian CO2 begins to get stored in the carbonate platforms close to newly formed coastlines, reducing the levels in the atmosphere.

When the ocean formed in a Wilson Cycle is old enough, oceanic crust begins to subduct the continents and after Cambrian part of this carbon returns to the atmosphere from calc-alkaline magmas of volcanic arcs. This is what is starting to happen in the Atlantic Ocean.

Currently, the Atlantic has three isolated subduction zones: the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean, the Scotia Arc in the South Atlantic, and the Gibraltar Arc in the Mediterranean.

enter image description here

source: earthmagazine.org

Part of the CO2 gets stored in the Continental Crust, staying in the lithosphere reservoir in the form of CaCO3. So the balance of Wilson Cycle since the Cambrian is a reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere (shown in the first graph), and an increase of Continental Crust. The second consequence applies for the hole Earth History where the Wilson Cycle has been operating.

A teacher told us in University the Pacific ring is more powerfull than Atlantic dorsal, and Atlantic Ocean is going to disappear. If that is true, in the following millions of years, part of the CO2 stored in the Atlantic Ocean will return to the atmosphere.

So answering your question, the Earth would not run out of CO2 in the next million years with no human intervention. Some CO2 stored in the Atlantic Ocean is going to be released to the atmosphere. Maybe in the next Wilson Cycle when the Atlantic Ocean closes forming a new supercontinent and breaking again forming a new ocean, but it is a nosense to talk about climate in said 100my as human technology for sure will modelate climate in the future.

Apart from volcanism are there any processes that return carbon captured in fossil fuels and limestone to the atmosphere?

Apart from humans burning fossil fuels and volcanism, CaCO3 starts to dissolve in the oceans at certain profundity/pressure. The level when CaCO3 start to dissolve is known as Carbonate compensation depth (CCD). The ocean is in equillibrium with the atmosphere because of Henry's law so that affects atmospheric CO2 levels.


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