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Our main research topics

Global biogeochemistry is the study of Earth’s metabolism.

It describes how essential elements like carbon (C), oxygen (O), phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) are constantly changed and relocated on our planet. These four elements - which are essential for life - continuously cycle through different compartments of our Earth, the "spheres" that make up the Earth System: the biosphere (all living organisms), the atmosphere (air & outer gas layers), the hydrosphere (water) and the geosphere/lithosphere (solid part). While cycling through the spheres, the elements are continuously subject to biological, chemical and physical changes.

For example, when initially bound in varying organic compounds in living organisms, the essential elements can be released in different molecular compositions from the biosphere and distributed throughout the atmosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere. From there, the elements may find their way back to the biosphere to be converted again by various organisms. Such cycling may occur from extremely small to extremely large scales in time and space.

Trace gases which are composed of essential elements exemplify such cycling.

Thus, the trace gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and water vapor (H2O) are a main research focus of our institute.

Although the air contains only low concentrations of these gases, they have a decisive influence on the climate and, hence, on the conditions for life on Earth. The concentration and distribution of these gases is regulated by biological, chemical and physical processes that occur in the different “spheres”, and it is also largely affected by human activities.

At the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry we focus on observing and diagnosing the current rapid changes of such element cycles in the Earth System, specifically the connections among land ecosystems, the atmosphere and climate.

We focus on land because it is where humans live and obtain the majority of their resources, and because the role of land is among the largest uncertainties in global budgets of several of the major biogeochemical elements.

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