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Carbon in land plants

Updated Sunday, 7th May 2000

In autumn, green plants start to release the carbon they've held in trust all summer.

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Green plants Creative commons image Icon Astrid Photography under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license

From the tundra to the tropics, green plants have adapted to a wide range of environments. But, despite the differences in appearance, they all share the ability to photosynthesise. By doing this, they drive the land’s biological carbon cycle.

Green plants draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to organic carbon. This form of carbon can nourish herbivores big and small. In temperate, deciduous forests, the leaves of trees and undergrowth store organic carbon. But not for long.

When autumn comes the leaves die, providing a feast for a huge and varied troupe of soil residents. Over the year they return most of the carbon to the atmosphere. But the trunks and branches endure from year to year. These woody parts of land plants can store organic carbon for hundreds of years.

Where do you find the carbon?

The vegetation covering the Earth's surface

What form of carbon?

Organic carbon

How long will the carbon remain?

Most returns to the atmosphere within a year, but some will remain much longer, such as woody tissue

How much carbon is there?

About 500 x 1012 kg

What processes will free the carbon?

Respiration, burning





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