Photosynthesis, Decomposition and the "Buried Carbon" Hypothesis



Wilderness Research Foundation (USA) has developed two teaching modules based on a project we conducted in the Antarctic Peninsula in January 2010. They're available free for any educator interested in reviewing them for classroom use. The project concerned the collection of soil samples for the potential corroboration of a new conception of the carbon cycle. The principal investigator was Dr. Ning Zeng, an associate professor of meteorology at the Earth Systems Science Interdisciplinary Center of the University of Maryland.

Big Ideas

  1. Plants store energy in organic molecules, and this energy is released when the plants decompose (or are eaten).
  2. Organic matter can be covered as glaciers advance and re-exposed when they retreat, this preserving organic matter from decomposition for vast time periods.
  3. When organic matter is re-exposed after deglaciation, release of carbon dioxide during decomposition can add to Earth's greenhouse gasses. This is something called "buried carbon hypothesis."
  4. Burial of organic matter during glaciation and re-exposure during glacial retreat form marts of "feedback loops" that influence climate patterns.


Wilderness Research Foundation
King George Island Expedition Educational Activities Series. Written by Michael J. Passow, Ed.D.


Resource Details

Author(s): Sheldon Bart, Michael J. Passow


  • PDF attached



Completion time

Less than a week

Grade Level

Middle School and Up


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Earth Science