The Global Carbon Cycle

Spring 2014 quarter

Taught by

chemical oceanography, biogeochemistry, freshwater ecology

The global carbon cycle is fundamentally tied to many of the most important environmental issues of the twenty-first century, including climate change, energy consumption, ocean acidification, deforestation, and the pollution of freshwater ecosystems.   As such, an accurate understanding of the carbon cycle is necessary to guide policy to work towards an effective solution to many of these complex issues.  Accordingly, this program will explore the fundamentals of the global carbon cycle.  Specifically, we will study the distribution of carbon between different reservoirs on Earth (i.e. the atmosphere, the ocean, and the land), and then examine the sequence of biogeochemical processes that control the cycling of carbon between these reservoirs.  Further, we will use case studies of current hot research topics to explore how anthropogenic activities are altering the global carbon cycle in different ecosystem types (forests, lakes, rivers, and the ocean).  Additional topics to be covered include greenhouse gasses, the effects of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels on terrestrial and aquatic organisms, carbon sequestration, the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles (as they relate to the carbon cycle), ocean acidification, and deforestation.  Seminar readings will be based on primary literature in addition to the required program text.  Hands-on laboratory activities and a field trip will be used to support lectures and seminar readings.

2014 Syllabus

Faculty Biography
Erin Ellis, Ph.D., is an aquatic biogeochemist whose research focuses on examining the role of rivers in the global carbon cycle. Rivers are large sources of carbon to both the atmosphere and the ocean and are consequently critical to our understanding of the global carbon cycle.  While working in the Amazon Basin, her research demonstrated that bacteria living in the river produce high levels of carbon dioxide through respiration, and this carbon dioxide is subsequently lost to the atmosphere.  Her current research in the Mekong Basin (i.e. Cambodia) focuses on characterizing the type of organic carbon that is exported by large rivers to the ocean.  Specifically, she uses molecular tracers to determine where in the watershed the carbon originates from, and uses radiocarbon analyses to determine the age of this material.  Such information is necessary in order to understand the preservation of terrestrial carbon in the ocean, which can affect atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over long time scales.  Through her training (master’s and doctoral degrees from the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington), Erin has research experience working in streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean.  Additional interests include ocean acidification, estuarine ecology, evaluating the impacts of dams on downstream processes, and microbial ecology.  Her past and present research has been conducted through collaborations with colleagues in Brazil, Cambodia, and the Pacific Northwest. 

Program Details

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Evening

Advertised schedule: 6-10p Mon


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Online Learning

Hybrid Online Learning < 25% Delivered Online:

Undergraduate Credit Option

Requires Faculty Approval

Registration Information

Credits: 4 (Spring)

Class standing: Graduate

Maximum enrollment: 15


Course Reference Number

(4 GR credits): 30089

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