What We Can Learn by Digging Up the Secrets of Earth’s Deep Carbon

Diamond computers and subsurface life are just some of the topics being investigated by scientists in the Deep Carbon Observatory network

If Earth was an apple, its crust would only be as thick as the apple's skin. While so much of our planet remains hidden from view, scientists are constantly finding new ways to peer into the depths so we can truly understand how surface life is affected by what lies beneath.

For instance, although life as we know it is based on carbon, it remains a mysterious element in the deeper parts of the planet. The carbon we can access for study in the land, air and sea makes up just 10 percent of what we suspect the Earth contains. That's why a vast network of scientists—including Elizabeth Cottrell of the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program—came together to start the Deep Carbon Observatory in 2009. This decade-long project aims to figure out how carbon cycles throughout the whole planet and what intriguing forms it might take as it moves.

Now the Deep Carbon Observatory has reached the midway point in this effort, and the preliminary results have wide-ranging applications. Fresh understanding of how carbon compounds like methane are created at depth hints at the origins of life on Earth—and the possibility for life deep under the surfaces of far-off worlds. Newly revealed structures of carbon show how we might one day build powerful computers from diamond. And detailed analysis of volcanic gases is offering a window into the amount of deeply held carbon that is entering Earth's atmosphere.

“Understanding carbon at a fundamental level is critical to the health and well-being of society, and deep carbon is an important part of that story that we just don’t know very much about,” the observatory's executive director Robert Hazen says in the video above. “Carbon is not only the element of life but now the premiere element of science.”

(Video courtesy of the Deep Carbon Observatory; text by Victoria Jaggard)

Learn about this research and more at the Deep Carbon Observatory.

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