, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 209-234

Carbon biogeochemistry and climate change

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The rapid increase of atmospheric CO2 resulting from anthropogenic activites has stimulated a great deal of interest in the carbon cycle. Important decisions need to be made about future tolerable levels of atmospheric CO2 content, as well as the land and fossil fuel use strategies that will permit us to achieve these goals. The vast amount of new data on atmospheric CO2 content and ancillary properties that has become available during the last decade, and the development of models to interpret these data, have led to significant advances in our capacity to deal with such issues. However, a major continuing source of uncertainty is the role of photosynthesis in providing a sink for anthropogenic emissions. It is thus appropriate that a new evaluation of the status of our understanding of this issue should be made at this time.

The aim of this paper is to provide a setting for the papers that follow by giving an overview of the role of carbon dioxide in climate, the biogeochemical processes that control its distribution, and the evolution of carbon dioxide through time from the origin of the earth to the present. We begin with a discussion of relevant processes. We then proceed to a more detailed discussion of the time periods that are best documented: the late Pleistocene (during which time large continental ice sheets waxed and waned) and the modern era of anthropogenic impact on the carbon cycle.