A friend found the following chart about the "carbon cycle", and sent me an exasperated note, having given up on figuring it out. The chart came from a report, and was reprinted in Ars Technica (link).


The problem with the chart is that the designer is speaking to the choir. One must know a lot about the carbon cycle already to make sense of everything that's going on.

We see big and small arrows pointing up or down. Each arrow has a number attached to it, plus a range inside brackets. These numbers have no units, and it's not obvious what they are measuring.

The arrows come in a variety of colors. The colors are explained by labels but the labels dexcribe apparently unrelated concepts (e.g. fossil CO2 and land-use change).

Interspersed with the arrows is a singular dot. The dot also has a number attached to it. The number wears a plus sign, which signals it's being treated differently than the quantities with up arrows.

The singular dot is an outcast, ostracized from the community of dots in the bottom part of the chart. These dots have labels but no numbers. They come in different sizes but no scale is provided.

The background is divided into three parts, showing the atmosphere, the land mass, and the ocean. The placement of the arrows and dots suggests each measured quantity concerns one of these three parts. Well... except the dot labeled "surface sediments" that sit on the boundary of the land mass and the ocean.

The three-way classification is only one layer of the chart. A different classification is embedded in the color scheme. The gray, light green, and aquamarine arrows in the sky find their counterparts in the dots of the land mass, and the ocean.

What's more, the boundaries between land and sky, and between land and ocean are also painted with those colors. These boundary segments have been given different colors so that the lengths of these segments seem to contain data but we aren't sure what.

At this point, I noticed thin arrows which appear to depict back and forth flows. There may be two types of such exchanges, one indicated by a cycle, the other by two straight arrows in opposite directions. The cycles have no numbers while each pair of straight thin arrows gets two numbers, always identical.

At the bottom of the chart is a annotation in red: "Budget imbalance = -1.0". Presumably some formula ties the numbers shown above to this -1.0 result. We still don't know the units, and it's unclear if -1.0 is a bad number. A negative number shown in red typically indicates a bad number but how bad is it?

Finally, on the top right corner, I found a legend. It's not obvious at first because the legend symbols (arrows and dots) are shown in gray, a color not used elsewhere on the chart. It appears as if it represents another color category. The legend labels do little for me. What is an "anthropogenic flux"? What does the unit of "GtCO2" stand for? Other jargon includes "carbon cycling" and "stocks". The entire diagram is titled "carbon cycle" while the "carbon cycling" thin arrows are only a small part of the diagram.

The bottom line is I have no idea what this chart is saying to me, other than that the earth is a complex system, and that the designer has tried valiantly to impregnate the diagram with lots of information. If I am well read in environmental science, my experience is likely different.







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