Earth’s Nitrogen and Carbon Cycles

Ralf Halama, Gray Bebout

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding the Earth’s geological nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) cycles is fundamental for assessing the distribution of these volatiles between solid Earth (core, mantle and crust), oceans and atmosphere. This Special Communication about the Earth’s N and C cycles contains material that is relevant for researchers who are interested in the Topical Collection on planetary evolution “Reading Terrestrial Planet Evolution in Isotopes and Element Measurements”. Variations in the fluxes of N and C between these major reservoirs through geological time influenced the evolution and determined the unique composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. Here we review several key geological aspects of the N and C cycles of which our understanding has significantly advanced during the last decade through field-based, experimental and theoretical studies. Subduction zones are the most important pathway of both N and C from the Earth’s surface into the deep Earth. A key question in the flux quantification is how much of the volatile elements is stored in the downgoing slab and introduced into the mantle and how much is returned back to the surface and the atmosphere through arc magmatism. For N, the retention of N as NH4+ in minerals has a major influence on fluxes between reservoirs. The temperature-dependent stability of NH4+-bearing minerals determines whether N is predominantly retained in the slab to mantle depths (in subduction zones with a low geothermal gradient) or devolatilized (in subduction zones with a high geothermal gradient). Several lines of evidence suggest that the mantle is regassing with respect to N due to a net influx of subducted N over time, but this issue is highly debated and evidence to the contrary also exists. Nevertheless, there is consensus that the majority of the planetary N budget is stored in the Earth’s mantle, with the continental crust also constituting a significant N reservoir. For C, release from the subducting slab occurs through decarbonation reactions, dissolution and formation of carbonatitic liquids, but reprecipitation of C in the slab or the forearc mantle wedge may limit the effectiveness of direct return of C into the atmosphere. Carbon release through regional metamorphism in collision zone orogens also has potentially profound effects on C release into the atmosphere and consensus has emerged that such orogens are sources rather than sinks of atmospheric CO2. On shorter timescales, contact metamorphism through interaction of mantle-derived magmas with C-bearing country rocks, and the resulting release of large quantities of CH4 and/or CO2, has been linked to global warming events.

Original languageEnglish
Article number45
JournalSpace Science Reviews
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Carbon cycle
  • Nitrogen cycle
  • Planetary atmospheres
  • Planetary evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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