Changing carbon: Disrupting a balanced system
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Natural processes continually move carbon around the Earth system, releasing and absorbing it in turn. These natural carbon fluxes are far larger than the amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere by human activities, but over timescales of decades to centuries the natural fluxes cancel each other out, keeping the natural carbon cycle in balance. As carbon levels in the atmosphere have risen, natural carbon sinks have increased their absorption. However, this ‘natural compensation’ is not sufficient to take up all the extra carbon added to the atmosphere by human activities. So the remainder accumulates in the atmosphere, unbalancing the carbon cycle and changing the climate.
What happens to the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels? This is the question Dr Parv Suntharalingam is trying to answer. Combining her knowledge in physics, chemistry, biology and maths, Parv uses computer models to simulate how carbon moves around the Earth system. ‘Using these models gives us a more detailed understanding of how future emissions may be absorbed by the land and oceans,’ says Parv. Although Parv is based at the UEA, the data used in these models are based on measurements taken from around the world. Parv’s very first ocean sampling cruise took her from Perth to Sri Lanka, where she was born.