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What is Biogeochemistry?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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Biogeochemistry is an interdisciplinary field of study that is concerned with the various processes that affect the makeup of nature, including the earth and the atmosphere. These processes can be chemical, biological, physical, or geological in nature, hence the name biogeochemistry. The field is closely related to ecology in that it is concerned with much of the life on earth, though it is more focused on purely environmental concerns than ecology is. The field is particularly interested in the broad cyclical processes that some elements and substances, such as carbon, nitrogen, and water, go through. In the carbon cycle, for example, a biogeochemist traces the movement of carbon through the atmosphere, integration into organisms, release through decay, and many other processes.

The natural environment with which biogeochemistry is concerned is composed of many different parts. The biosphere, which contains all ecosystems, is essentially the summation of life on earth. The lithosphere includes the outer crust of the earth, or the generally-rocky outer layer of any planet that changes significantly over time. The hydrosphere includes all of the water on earth, the pedosphere includes the outermost layer of land and soil on the earth, and the atmosphere includes the gases surrounding the earth. All of these aspects of the earth constantly interact through many processes that are of great interest to biogeochemists.

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Researchers in the field of biogeochemistry have many diverse goals as many of them specialize in different aspects of the discipline, such as chemistry, biology, ecology, or oceanography. One major focus of biogeochemical research is the development of computer models for many of the processes that these scientists study. These processes often occur over vast periods of time, so computer models allow scientists to study them in ways that are not limited by temporal concerns. Another research focus is climate change; biogeochemists are interested in monitoring and modeling climate change in order to understand its underlying causes and, if necessary, to recommend action to reverse or slow it.

Biogeochemistry is not strictly an academic concern. Biogeochemists are sometimes also active in government and in industry, usually in an advisory capacity. Biogeochemists may advise government leaders about environmental issues and actions that should be taken to correct them. They may serve a similar role in industry, advising industrial leaders about the environmental impacts of their activities and recommending prime locations for some industrial activities. Sometimes, biogeochemists are even involved in prospecting for ore deposits.

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irontoenail
Post 3

@bythewell - I guess it depends on what you want to do. I agree that natural systems can be very complicated, but it's not all that difficult to map all the ways that a particular factory is destroying the local marine biogeochemistry and petition for it to clean up its act.

Not all projects need to be completely holistic although I definitely agree that they should take as many different factors into account as possible.

But, the whole purpose of biogeochemistry is to look at the overall picture, generally by researching the studies that other people have done on specific functions. That's why it is often a theory based specialty.

bythewell
Post 2

@croydon - I think that a specialist in this kind of field would be good for an overall perspective on that kind of work, but if it is to really take off you'd need specialists in various areas as well.

Take the biogeochemistry of estuaries for example. You can't just look at the processes of the physical elements of the system. And even if you could, there are just too many. If you were truly going to build up a picture of how to improve such an ecosystem you'd need experts on water quality and mollusks and bird life and plant life and weather and so forth.

Not to mention needing to know about politics and law and so forth.

A biogeochemist might be able to tie it together, with the help of an ecologist and a set of lawyers, but natural systems are often so complex there are never going to be simple solutions to that kind of problem.

croydon
Post 1

I always thought that this field was the next big job opportunity for young scientists, particularly the biogeochemistry of a forested ecosystem.

There are so many places in which bad judgment has led to the original forests or other vegetation being destroyed resulting in very poor soil quality.

Erosion and drought take care of the rest and the soil might even wear away to nothing.

An ecologist is rarely concerned with a completely destroyed ecosystem, but a biogeochemist might be able to see past the devastation to a way in which the land could be renewed. They have to learn the overall processes that occur with the weather and with bacteria and so forth, the ones that occur whenever soil is generated.

If we could start reclaiming areas that have been destroyed, we would have many more resources for the people of the world to thrive.

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