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Journal Articles Comptes Rendus Géoscience Year : 2012

Historical constraints on the origins of the carbon cycle concept


Understanding the geological carbon cycle remains a major scientific challenge, although studies dedicated to this issue, in particular those of J.J. Ebelmen in the mid 19th century, have existed for over 200 years. The exact scientific and social pathways leading to the construction of the contemporaneous carbon cycle requires further investigation, which in turn may provide valuable insights into the modern state of scientific knowledge. The present study contributes to this question by demonstrating that, following the discovery of the compound nature of carbonic acid by A.L. Lavoisier at the end of the 18th century, studies initially investigated the mechanisms of respiration and photosynthesis until they were recognized as exerting an antagonistic effect on the composition of air. In the early 19th century, the consequence of these studies at the global scale had been foreseen, and applied to investigate the stability of the atmospheric composition over time. These early steps were only concerned with the fate of carbonic acid through life processes. However, between 1820 and 1840, the works of A.L. Brongniard and J.B. Boussingault established that geologic processes, such as the burial of carbonaceous material (CM) in sedimentary rocks and the release of CO2 by volcanoes, affect the composition of the atmosphere. By 1845, J.J. Ebelmen had brilliantly contributed to the emerging question of atmospheric composition by proposing that the alteration of silicates on continents and the precipitation of carbonates in the ocean should be considered as a sink of atmospheric CO2. He also used chemical formula of the time to quantify this process, which led him to mention a carbon rotation for the first time. The rotation of this element through geologic processes became, in itself, a matter worthy of investigation as was the composition of the atmosphere. We argue that J.J. Ebelmen's brilliant synthesis was made possible by the parallel development of the atomistic model of matter in the early 19th century by the influential works of J. Dalton and J.J. Berzelius. Finally, through the 19th century, the development of the theory of sediment subsidence and its application by T.S. Hunt to the rotation of carbon, along with the correlated experimental results obtained on the stability of materials at high pressure and temperature, led progressively to a synthetic model of the carbon cycle by V. Vernadsky in the early 20th century. A final shift to this model occurred with the emergence of the theory of plate tectonics and subduction zones that provides a major physical ground to account for C recycling between surfacial and deep reservoirs of the planet.
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insu-03583012 , version 1 (21-02-2022)



Matthieu Emmanuel Galvez, Jérôme Gaillardet. Historical constraints on the origins of the carbon cycle concept. Comptes Rendus Géoscience, 2012, 344, pp.549-567. ⟨10.1016/j.crte.2012.10.006⟩. ⟨insu-03583012⟩
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