There are a few types of atoms that can be a part of a plant one day, an animal the next day, and then travel downstream as a part of a river’s water the following day. These atoms can be a part of both living things like plants and animals, as well as non-living things like water, air, and even rocks. The same atoms are recycled over and over in different parts of the Earth. This type of cycle of atoms between living and non-living things is known as a biogeochemical cycle.
All of the atoms that are building blocks of living things are a part of biogeochemical cycles. The most common of these are carbon and nitrogen.
Tiny atoms of carbon and nitrogen have no legs to walk, no bicycles, cars, or airplanes. Yet they can travel around the world as a part of biogeochemical cycles. So, how do these little things move around the planet? Here’s an example: An atom of carbon is absorbed from the air into the ocean water where it is used by little floating plankton doing photosynthesis to get the nutrition they need. There is the possibility that this little carbon atom becomes part of the plankton’s skeleton, or a part of the skeleton of the larger animal that eats it, and then part of a sedimentary rock when the living things die and only bones are left behind. Carbon that is a part of rocks and fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas may be held away from the rest of the carbon cycle for a long time. These long-term storage places are called “sinks”. When fossil fuels are burned, carbon that had been underground is sent into the air as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
Recently, people have been causing these biogeochemical cycles to change (see links below). When we cut down forests, make more factories, and drive more cars that burn fossil fuels, the way that carbon and nitrogen move around the Earth changes. These changes add more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and this causes more global warming.