The Earth’s climate is determined by a number of complex connected physical, chemical and biological processes occurring in the atmosphere, land and ocean. The radiative properties of the atmosphere, a major controlling factor of the Earth’s climate, are strongly affected by the biophysical state of the Earth’s surface and by the atmospheric abundance of a variety of trace constituents. These constituents include long-lived greenhouse gases (LLGHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as other radiatively active constituents such as ozone and different types of aerosol particles. The composition of the atmosphere is determined by processes such as natural and anthropogenic emissions of gases and aerosols, transport at a variety of scales, chemical and microphysical transformations, wet scavenging and surface uptake by the land and terrestrial ecosystems, and by the ocean and its ecosystems. These processes and, more generally the rates of biogeochemical cycling, are affected by climate change, and involve interactions between and within the different components of the Earth system. These interactions are generally nonlinear and may produce negative or positive feedbacks to the climate system.
An important aspect of climate research is to identify potential feedbacks and assess if such feedbacks could produce large and undesired responses to perturbations resulting from human activities. Studies of past climate evolution on different time scales can elucidate mechanisms that could trigger nonlinear responses to external forcing. The purpose of this chapter is to identify the major biogeochemical feedbacks of significance to the climate system, and to assess current knowledge of their magnitudes and trends. Specifically, this chapter will examine the relationships between the physical climate system and the land surface, the carbon cycle, chemically reactive atmospheric gases and aerosol particles. It also presents the current state of knowledge on budgets of important trace gases. Large uncertainties remain in many issues discussed in this chapter, so that quantitative estimates of the importance of the coupling mechanisms discussed in the following sections are not always available. In addition, regional differences in the role of some cycles and the complex interactions between them limit our present ability to provide a simple quantitative description of the interactions between biogeochemical processes and climate change.