Climate Change and Biogeochemical Impacts


Human activities are causing a significant build‐up of heat‐trapping greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) and aerosols in the atmosphere driven by emissions from fossil fuel combustion, industry, agriculture and deforestation. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is more than 40% above preindustrial levels and growing, and levels would be even higher without modulation by land biosphere and ocean uptake. Model projections for the coming century suggest that these changes in atmospheric composition will result in substantial global warming and strengthening of the hydrological cycle and there is growing observational evidence of a substantial alteration in climate patterns. Carbon cycle (CO2 and CH4) feedbacks to climate from the land and ocean can significantly affect future climate, but current projections of these effects are highly uncertain. Climate change and other human‐driven processes such as land‐use changes and ocean acidification will have profound impacts on global biogeochemistry and terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Key Concepts

  • The carbon cycle will have a significant impact on the amount and pace of future climate change.

  • Atmospheric levels of CO2, other greenhouse gases (CH4 and N2O) and some aerosols have increased substantially above preindustrial levels due to human activities.

  • Changing atmospheric composition alters the radiative balance of the planet and the resulting climate impacts reflect many feedback mechanisms that can either amplify or diminish the initial perturbation.

  • Global‐scale climate warming, changes in the water cycle and melting of the cryosphere are already underway, and these trends are projected to continue into the future.

  • Fossil‐fuel use transfers carbon from a long‐lived geological reservoir to the atmosphere–land–ocean system where excess CO2 can reside in the atmosphere for many centuries.

  • The biosphere and oceans mitigate some of the effects of fossil fuel burning and deforestation but the future of these carbon sinks under an altered climate is highly uncertain.

  • Changes to climate and the carbon cycle cause profound changes to ocean physics, biology and chemistry including changes to temperature and pH likely to affect marine ecosystems profoundly.

  • Changes to climate may change terrestrial ecosystems through disturbance processes such as wildfire or disease.

  • New approaches are essential including expanded observing systems and satellite measurements and improving techniques for combining these observations with predictive models.

Keywords: climate change; carbon cycle; carbon dioxide; ecosystem dynamics; greenhouse gases

Figure 1. Time series of monthly atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (ppm) at Mauna Loa. Figure courtesy of Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL ( and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (
Figure 2. Atmospheric CO2, CH4 and N2O concentration history over the industrial era (b) and from year 0 to the year 1750 (a), determined from air enclosed in ice cores and firn air (colour symbols) and from direct atmospheric measurements (blue lines, measurements from the Cape Grim observatory). Reproduced from Ciais et al., 2013.
Figure 3. Anthropogenic components of the global carbon budget as a function of time, for (top) emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production (grey) and emissions from land‐use change (tan) and (bottom) their partitioning among the atmosphere (light blue), land (green) and oceans (dark blue). All time series are in PgC yr−1. Reproduced from Le Quéré et al., 2014.
Figure 4. (a,b) Different amounts of heat‐trapping gases released into the atmosphere by human activities produce different projected increases in Earth's temperature. Results from (panel a) climate models using two scenarios from the IPCC SRES Special Report on Emissions Scenarios) and (panel b) the most recent generation of climate models (CMIP5) using the most recent emissions pathways (RCPs – representative concentration pathways). Each line represents a central estimate of global average temperature rise (relative to the 1901–1960 average) for a specific emissions pathway. Shading indicates the range (5th to 95th percentile) of results from a suite of climate models. Projections in 2099 for additional emissions pathways are indicated by the bars to the right of each panel. In all cases, temperatures are expected to rise, although the difference between lower and higher emissions pathways is substantial. Reproduced from Walsh et al., 2014.
Figure 5. Observed global average temperature changes (black line), model simulations using only changes in natural factors (solar and volcanic) in green and model simulations with the addition of human‐induced emissions (blue). Climate changes since 1950 cannot be explained by natural factors or variability and can only be explained by human factors. Reproduced from Walsh et al., 2014 (adapted from Huber and Knutti, 2012 © Nature Publishing Group).


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Further Readings

Archer D (2010) The Global Carbon Cycle (Princeton Primers in Climate). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 224 pages ISBN‐13: 978‐0691144146.

Doney SC (2013) Marine ecosystems, biogeochemistry, and climate. Chapter 31 in Ocean Circulation and Climate, 2nd Ed. A 21st Century Perspective, Eds. Siedler G, Griffies SM, Gould J, and Church JA, Academic Press, International Geophysics Series, vol. 103, pp. 817–842, ISBN: 978‐0‐12‐391851‐2, ISSN: 0074‐6142

Schimel D (2013) Climate and Ecosystems (Princeton Primers in Climate). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 240 pages. ISBN‐13: 978‐0691151960.

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Doney, Scott C, and Schimel, David(Jan 2015) Climate Change and Biogeochemical Impacts. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003242.pub3]