Biogeochemistry

What is Biogeochemistry?

Biogeochemistry is a relatively new scientific discipline that explores the physical, chemical, biological, and geological processes and reactions that govern the composition of and changes to the natural environment. In particular, biogeochemistry studies the cycles of crucial elements, such as carbon and nitrogen, and their interactions with other substances and organisms as they move through Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere (water and ice), biosphere (life), and lithosphere (rock). The field focuses especially on the diverse and interlinked chemical cycles that are either driven by or have an impact on biological activity, in particular carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus.

A prime example is carbon, the building block of life on Earth, and the planet-encompassing carbon cycle. Photosynthetic plants on land and sea take carbon dioxide (a form of inorganic carbon) from the atmosphere and convert it into the organic forms of carbon they need to live and grow. Animals that consume the plants incorporate the organic carbon into their own bodies.

Microbes eventually decompose dead plants and animals, and their carbon is recycled into soils and groundwater or swept into the oceans, where it becomes available to microbes and phytoplankton at the base of the marine food chain or it sinks and is buried in seafloor sediments. Over millions of years, carbon that is buried on land or at the bottom of the ocean becomes incorporated into rocks or hydrocarbons, where it might remain for tens to hundreds of millions of years. Ultimately, volcanoes return some of this carbon to the air as gas, where its heat-trapping properties affect Earth’s climate, or else the rocks containing carbon are uplifted onto continents and gradually weathered, releasing their carbon back to the environment and making it available to organisms once again.

Why is it Important?

In a sense, chemicals are like currency, and biogeochemistry is the study of the nearly limitless “transactions” that drive the entire planetary system, including life on Earth. Understanding these fundamental processes provides crucial insights into how life formed, has evolved, is sustained, and is threatened on our planet, and how the various chemical cycles govern and regulate Earth’s climate and environment.

Such knowledge enhances our ability to find ways to adapt to climate change and its impacts, enhance agriculture and food production, manage fisheries, mitigate pollution, develop alternative and renewable energy, prevent diseases and create new drugs, and spur innovations that can drive economic prosperity and improve our quality of life.

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News & Insights

Falling in love with foraminifera

A marine geobiologist falls for the ‘brains’ and beauty of an ancient single-celled creature that can change its shell into a variety of geometric shapes.

Putting the ‘nuclear coffin’ in perspective

WHOI chemist and marine radioactivity expert shares his thoughts about radioactivity waste leaking from Runit Dome—a bomb crater filled with radioactive soil in the Marshall Islands that is now being penetrated by rising sea levels

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From Oceanus Magazine

Chasing Ocean ‘Snowflakes’

Scientists envision putting a flotilla of devices in the ocean to act as “eyes” that can track the “marine snow” that drifts down into the ocean.

Journey to the Bottom of the Sea

My eyelids were tightly pressed down as I mustered all the tricks I could think of to get myself to…

Life at the Edge

What makes the shelf break front such a productive and diverse part of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean? A group of scientists on the research vessel Neil Armstrong spent two weeks at sea in 2018 as part of a three-year, NSF-funded project to find out.

The Discovery of Hydrothermal Vents

In 1977, WHOI scientists made a discovery that revolutionized our understanding of how and where life could exist on Earth and other planetary bodies.

Mission to the Ocean Twilight Zone

The twilight zone is a part of the ocean 660 to 3,300 feet below the surface, where little sunlight can reach. It is deep and dark and cold, and the pressures there are enormous. Despite these challenging conditions, the twilight zone teems with life that helps support the ocean’s food web and is intertwined with Earth’s climate. Some countries are gearing up to exploit twilight zone fisheries, with unknown impacts for marine ecosystems and global climate. Scientists and engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are poised to explore and investigate this hidden frontier.


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