Deep Carbon and Deep Carbon Science

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Deep Carbon

The element carbon plays a fundamental role on Earth. It forms the chemical backbone for all essential organic molecules produced by living organisms. Carbon-based fuels supply most of society’s energy. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is the primary cause of climate change. Yet despite carbon’s importance, remarkably little is known about the physical, chemical, and biological behavior of the element in the vast majority of Earth’s interior.

Past consideration of the global carbon cycle has focused primarily on the oceans, atmosphere, and shallow crust, resulting in a detailed knowledge of these aspects of Earth’s carbon cycle. By contrast, relatively little is known about the deep carbon cycle. A more accurate understanding of Earth’s deep carbon cycle will greatly advance our understanding of the planet.

Although Earth’s deep interior may contain more than 90% of global carbon, basic questions about deep carbon are poorly constrained:

• How much carbon is stored in Earth’s deep interior?
• What are the reservoirs of that carbon?
• How does carbon move among reservoirs?
• Are there significant carbon fluxes between Earth’s deep interior and the surface?
• What is the nature and extent of deep microbial life?
• Did deep biochemistry play a role in life’s origins?
• Are there deep sources of abiotic methane and other hydrocarbons?


Deep Carbon Science

Deep carbon science explores how much carbon is in Earth, how it moves, what form it takes, where and how it originated, and how it has changed over billions of years.

The field of  deep carbon science is strikingly interdisciplinary, integrating the knowledge of chemists, physicists, geologists, and biologists who study carbon deep in Earth. Using laboratory experiments, computational models, and real-time observations, DCO scientists are filling in the global carbon puzzle with findings that extend our understanding of carbon deep in Earth.

Read more about the origins and history of DCO.


DCO’s Four-Part Approach Toward Understanding Deep Carbon

DCO'S Science Communities

DCO science is categorized into four Communities - Extreme Physics and Chemistry, Reservoirs and Fluxes, Deep Energy, and Deep Life - each guided by a theme-based Scientific Steering Committee. Although each Community pursues their own set of decadal goals and guiding questions, these Communities do not rigidly divide DCO scientists, who are encouraged to be part of multiple Communities and collaborate with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries.

Extreme Physics and Chemistry

Extreme Physics and ChemistryThe Extreme Physics and Chemistry Community is dedicated to improving our understanding of the physical and chemical behavior of carbon at the extremely high temperatures and pressures found in the interior (mantle and core) of Earth and other planets using both theoretical and experimental approaches.


Reservoirs and Fluxes

Reservoirs and FluxesThe Reservoirs and Fluxes Community focuses on identifying the principal deep carbon reservoirs in Earth (including diamond), determining the mechanisms and rates by which carbon moves between deep and shallow reservoirs, and assessing the total amount of carbon on Earth, both in the field and in the lab.


Deep Energy

Deep EnergyThe Deep Energy Community objectives include developing a fundamental understanding of environments and processes that regulate the volume and rates of production of abiogenic hydrocarbons and other organic compounds in the crust and mantle over geologic time through observation and experimentation.


Deep Life

Deep lifeThe Deep Life Community is committed to exploring the nature and extent of the deep microbial and viral biosphere, determining the potential extreme limits to life on Earth and other planets, and developing insights regarding life’s geochemical origins below Earth’s surface.


Anatomy of Earth graphic: Deep Carbon Observatory. Click to enlarge.