Water and carbon as natural systems

This module will provide useful information that will help students understand why water and carbon natural systems are essential in our daily lives. After reading this module, students will have a deeper understanding of the following:

  • The significance of water and carbon for sustaining life here on Earth.
  • The different processes that involve bodies of water. These are subdivided into inputs, outputs, and stockpiles.
  • Why carbon is called the “building block of life on our planet” and its necessity in our daily lives.
  • To what degree water and carbon cycles are correlated with each other.

Without water and carbon, it would be impossible to sustain life here on our planet. Water is the main reason why the planet Earth is fit for humans to live. As living things, we are completely dependent on it for our survival. It is also responsible for the existence of plants and animals. If they did not exist, we would not have any food to consume.

Let’s take a brief look at the stockpiles of water on our planet. The highest percentage of water can be found in our saltwater oceans while the remaining portions of it are found in freshwater systems that are segregated into small segments such as glaciers, lakes, swamps, rivers, etc.

The transfer of water from one place to another is a result of numerous processes. The essential processes that involve bodies of water include:

  • Evaporation – liquid water turns into a vapor. In this process, the water evaporates from the planet’s surface. A similar process, called transpiration, involves the leaves of plants receiving water from the ground which they then turn into gas. Together, both processes that transfer water to our atmosphere are called evapotranspiration.

    Evaporation
  • Condensation – the opposite of evaporation. In this process, the vapor in the atmosphere becomes liquid.

    Condensation
  • Precipitation – the weather condition through which water is transmitted to the surface of the earth in the form of rain, snow, hail, etc.
    (Note that in this process, carbon is also involved; you will learn more about this later in this module.)
  • Ablation – a natural process in which snow or ice are eliminated from the surface of a glacier through melting or sublimation.

    Ablation
  • Percolation – the process in which water travels downward through soil.

    Percolation

Similar to water, carbon is an abundant element that can be found on our planet and is mainly responsible for the energy that we use in our daily lives, such as coal and oil.

The production of electricity and fuels and many other resources are a result of coal. Furthermore, the widespread use of different kinds of oils, including petroleum, natural gas, methane, propane, etc., gives you an idea of how important the element of carbon is to our everyday lives.

The cycles of water and carbon move through systems simultaneously. These systems are composed of different components which are connected by energy and the objects that are surging through those systems.

Energy and objects have freedom to transfer in and out of open systems. However, in closed systems, only energy can enter and leave freely. Examples of closed systems include water and carbon cycles when we are considering a global scale. Additionally, the energy that is produced by the sun can manipulate those two cycles. Yet no physical objects can enter or exit them.

On the other hand, when we are talking about small-scale systems, energy and objects do enter and leave. One example of such systems is the drainage of basins.

Just like bodies of water, there are also certain processes that involve carbon:

  • Precipitation – this process is common for both water and carbon elements as carbon dioxide in our atmosphere can combine with water in rain to create a carbonic acid. It is through this process that carbon comes back to the soil and enters bodies of water.
    Precipitation

    Precipitation
  • Photosynthesis – the conversion of light energy into chemical energy that eventually turns into a fuel that can boost organisms’ energy. The chemical energy that is stockpiled inside a carbohydrate molecule is produced from carbon dioxide and water. One example is sugar.

    Photosynthesis
  • Respiration – the release of energy by splitting sugars (the complete opposite of photosynthesis). Both photosynthesis and respiration are key elements of the quick cycle of carbon.
  • Decomposition – a common carbon process in which a dead organism rots because of bacteria.

    Decomposition
  • Combustion – this process happens when an organic object is burned, resulting in carbon being transformed into carbon dioxide. One example of naturally occurring combustion is a wildfire.

    Combustion
  • Weathering – this process, involving physical, biological or chemical elements, happens when water from acid-containing rain makes contact with rocks/soil which is then shattered and absorbed by the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The calcium carbonate in the rocks or soil transform into calcium bicarbonate which is vulnerable and has a tendency to soften and eventually destroy itself.

    Weathering

Now you know the different processes that affect water and carbon. We can see that both are a big part of our daily lives. They are both a part of our planet’s natural cycle and are tied together. Neither can ever be removed from our system because we are utterly dependent on them and their cycles.

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