Watch the Earth BREATHE: Mesmerising animation captures plants taking up and releasing carbon as the seasons change

  • Animation shows Earth's land 'sucking' in and emitting carbon through the year 
  • It's based on satellite observations and hundreds of carbon-monitoring stations 
  • Continents inflate in the winter when plants die and release their stored carbon
  • In summer they deflate as plants suck carbon from the atmosphere as they grow

A mesmerising new animation shows the Earth 'breathing' in and out carbon with the changing of the seasons throughout the year.  

Parts of the globe can be seen sinking as the Earth's plants suck carbon out of the atmosphere, but inflate when these plants release carbon.  

The animation was created by Professor Markus Reichstein, an ecologist at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany

It shows the carbon cycle — the process in which carbon atoms continually travel from the atmosphere to the Earth and then back into the atmosphere. 

Parts of the world are seen to deflate (and turn blue and green) as plants 'breathe in' carbon during the spring and summer as they grow

Parts of the world are seen to deflate (and turn blue and green) as plants 'breathe in' carbon during the spring and summer as they grow

WHERE IS EARTH'S CARBON STORED? 

Amazon rainforest: 200 billion tonnes

Siberian permafrost: 950 billion tonnes

Arctic: 1,600 billion tonnes

Oceans: As much as 38,000 billion tonnes, according to World Ocean Review 

These figures are estimates, but true values may be higher. By contrast, humans produce an estimated 36 billion tonnes of carbon annually.

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Professor Reichstein's animation is based on satellite observations and hundreds of carbon-monitoring stations worldwide.

'The visualisation is really just a fun project,' Professor Reichstein told Live Science. 'This carbon cycle and how it changes from month to month tells us a lot.' 

"It basically is showing how important it is to protect the carbon sinks.'  

Generally, the continents can be seen deflating during spring and summer, like a football without enough air, as the Earth's plants suck carbon out of the atmosphere during their growth process.

In the winter, meanwhile, the continents can be seen inflating like a balloon about to burst, as plants die and release almost all of the carbon that they stored up into the atmosphere.   

As the animation shows, the most pronounced carbon sucking and carbon releases throughout the year are in the 'temperate latitudes' — the parts of Earth between the subtropics and the polar circles.  

This carbon cycle is less pronounced around the equator, where conditions are dryer and plant life is generally less abundant (in places like deserts). 

The temperate zone - the part of the Earth's surface between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer or between the Antarctic Circle and the Tropic of Capricorn - is characterised by temperate climate - meaning it's a mild, moderate temperature; neither too hot nor too cold

The temperate zone - the part of the Earth's surface between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer or between the Antarctic Circle and the Tropic of Capricorn - is characterised by temperate climate - meaning it's a mild, moderate temperature; neither too hot nor too cold

Continents inflate in the winter (and turn orange) when plants die and release their stored carbon

Continents inflate in the winter (and turn orange) when plants die and release their stored carbon

Professor Reichstein said: 'It basically is showing how important it is to protect the carbon sinks'

Professor Reichstein said: 'It basically is showing how important it is to protect the carbon sinks' 

Carbon from plants and trees enters into the carbon cycle when they die and this eventually manifests itself as carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas.

Plants use photosynthesis to capture carbon dioxide and then release half of it into the atmosphere through respiration. Plants also release oxygen into the atmosphere through photosynthesis. 

Professor Reichstein said the ocean isn't included in the animation because it doesn't show strong seasonal patterns, even though the ocean does take in carbon.

In fact, oceans store much more carbon than the atmosphere and the terrestrial biosphere — the parts of Earth where life exists on land.   

According to World Ocean Review, the ocean stores much as 38,000 billion tonnes of carbon, 16 times as much carbon as the terrestrial biosphere. 

Professor Reichstein also said climate change is altering the pattern of plant growth worldwide, although these changes are too small to show up in his animation. 

GLOBAL WARMING WILL REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF CARBON ABSORBED BY FORESTS BECAUSE HIGHER TEMPERATURES WILL MEAN THE LIFESPAN OF TREES WILL BE SHORTER 

Global warming will reduce the amount of carbon stored in forests, according to a 2019 study in Nature Communications.

Scientists said it is down to the fact that trees tend to 'live fast and die young' in the world's continually warming climate. 

The research team, led by Cambridge University scientists, said that increasing temperatures boost annual tree growth but slash their lifespan. 

The overall result, they said, is a reduction in the amount of carbon stored in forests as it returns to the environment when they die.  

Warm temperatures provide ideal growing conditions for trees which the researchers believe doesn't prepare the plant for adversity.

They say the lack of 'toughening up' often leads to the trees perishing when those grown in cooler climates would survive. 

The researchers said their findings have implications for global carbon cycle dynamics and, ultimately, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. 

As the Earth's climate continues to warm, they say tree growth will continue to accelerate, but the length of time that trees store carbon - the so-called 'carbon residence time' - will diminish.

During photosynthesis, trees and other plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to build new cells.

The research team explained that long-living trees, such as pines from high elevations and other conifers found across the high-northern latitude forests, can store carbon for many centuries.

Study lead author Professor Ulf Büntgen, of Cambridge University's Department of Geography, said: 'As the planet warms, it causes plants to grow faster, so the thinking is that planting more trees will lead to more carbon getting removed from the atmosphere.

'But that's only half of the story. The other half is one that hasn't been considered: that these fast-growing trees are holding carbon for shorter periods of time.'

Professor Büntgen uses the information contained in tree rings to study past climate conditions.

He explained that tree rings are as distinctive as fingerprints: the width, density and anatomy of each annual ring contains information about what the climate was like during that particular year.

By taking core samples from living trees and disc samples of dead trees, scientists are able to reconstruct how the Earth's climate system behaved in the past and understand how ecosystems were, and are, responding to temperature variation.

For the study, Professor Büntgen and colleagues sampled more than 1,100 living and dead mountain pines from the Spanish Pyrenees and 660 Siberian larch samples from the Russian Altai. Both are high-altitude forests that have been undisturbed for thousands of years.

The researchers used the samples to reconstruct the total lifespan and juvenile growth rates of trees that were growing during both industrial and pre-industrial climate conditions.

They found that harsh, cold conditions cause tree growth to slow, but they also make trees stronger, so that they can live to a great age.

But trees growing faster during their first 25 years die much sooner than their slow-growing relatives.

The negative relationship remained 'statistically significant' for samples from both living and dead trees in both regions, according to the findings.   

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Animation shows Earth 'breathing' carbon

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