Sequoia tree in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. California, United States.

The Carbon Cycle: How Trees Clean the Earth Every Day

The Earth’s biomass — the entirety of life on the planet — can be seen as a living organism, taking in carbon dioxide to provide energy for its metabolic processes, and then releasing it again as the circle of life turns. This is the carbon cycle.

The planet has a number of systems that take carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere when levels are too high, and then return it when levels drop too low. This is the planet’s thermostat, and it has managed to keep our climate relatively stable for billions of years. In a sense, the carbon cycle represents the breath of the planet, in and out, over the eons.

How the Carbon Cycle Works

There are actually two systems at work on the planet, the slow carbon cycle and the fast carbon cycle. The slow carbon cycle operates over millions of years. It pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through chemical weathering. CO2 dissolves out of the atmosphere into rain, creating weak carbonic acid. When this falls on exposed rock it dissolves out mineral ions, including calcium, which, along with the dissolved CO2 are washed out to sea.

Atmospheric CO2 is also absorbed directly into the ocean, where a number of chemical reactions convert a portion of the carbon from the CO2 into bicarbonate ions. These bicarbonate ions combine with the calcium ions dissolved out of rock to create calcium carbonate, the material a number of marine animals use to create their shells.

When the animals die, their shells sink to the bottom of the ocean, where they’re trapped in sediment and eventually converted into sedimentary rock, trapping the carbon.

Over time this process can remove huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, but it takes tens of millions of years. The fast carbon cycle operates on a much shorter timescale and also works to clean the Earth, particularly when humans harness and focus its power.

Trees Play a Key Role in the Fast Carbon Cycle

Whereas geological processes drive the slow carbon cycle, the fast carbon cycle revolves around life. Microorganisms and plants that use photosynthesis to create energy take in atmospheric CO2, and then use sunlight and water to create simple sugars, which they use for energy. Oxygen is released as a byproduct.

Forests are a major contributor to this process. On average, a single tree can sequester about a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere over a 40-year period. Multiply that out of the number of trees across the planet and it’s clear how effective the world’s forests are at scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere.

However, it’s a cycle. When trees die and biodegrade, or when they’re burned in a forest fire, the CO2 they’ve sequestered is released back into the atmosphere. This is where humans enter the equation.

Sustainable Forestry Helps Trees Clean the Planet

Sustainably logging trees for wood production, replacing them with new plantings, helps to more permanently pull CO2 out of the system. The trees are prevented from dying and releasing their CO2. Instead, the wood is used in construction, where it becomes a more permanent carbon sink. The new trees that replace the logged forests are free to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere. Since young trees remove CO2 faster than older trees, responsible forestry increases the rate at which the atmosphere can be cleaned.

Managed forests are also less likely to suffer catastrophic fires, further protecting the CO2 they’ve pulled from the atmosphere.

Properly managed forests provide other benefits as well. They prevent erosion, which helps keep silt and other debris out of rivers while providing shade to cool lakes, streams, and tributaries. This adds up to cool, clean water, an ideal habitat for fish and other water-dwelling species.

Belco Forest Products recognizes the power of our forests for keeping our planet clean, cool, and habitable, which is why they only use responsibly-sourced lumber in their premium wood trim. The planet can heal itself, and we can help, one tree at a time.

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