Environment of Earth

September 23, 2009


Filed under: Matter cycling — gargpk @ 4:59 pm

Most of the sulfur on Earth is stored in oceans (about 1.3 x 106 Pg), sedimentary rocks (about 2.7 x 106 Pg) and evaporites (about 5 x 106 Pg). Very small percentage reaches the surface and is exchanged with atmosphere. Accuracy of the natural emissions of sulfur is about 50% only.

Sulfur in lithosphere

Sulfur is 13th most abundant element in Earth’s crust (0.1%) and 9th most abundant in sediments. Sulfur content of rocks varies considerably e.g. sedimentary rocks have about 0.38% while igneous rocks have only 0.032%. Sulfur in lithosphere is mobilized by slow weathering of rock material. Dissolved in runoff, it moves with river-water and is deposited in continental shield sediments in oceans. Eventually on geological time-scale, this uplifts to surface again thus completing the geological part of the sulfur cycle.

Sulfur in hydrosphere

Main storage of sulfur in oceans is through dissolved sulfate, averaging about 2.7 g per kg. Most volatile sulfur compound in sea water is dimethyl sulfide (DMS; (CH3)2S) which is produced by algal and bacterial decay. Its concentration in sea water is about 100 x 10-9 L-1, highest concentrations being in coastal marshes and wetlands.

Sulfur is second most abundant compound in rivers with concentrations fluctuating highly with seasons and frequency of drought, flood and normal flow. Rivers transport about 100 Tg of sulfur per year to the oceans. The storage of main sulfur mass in oceans, sedimentary and evaporite rocks establishes the base for sulfur cycle.

Sulfur in soil and biosphere

Sulfur is major essential nutrient in the biosphere and is concentrated mainly in soil from where it enters biosphere through plant uptake. From soil, sulfur is also removed in solution to groundwater and by chemical volatilization. Its main sources are deposition from atmosphere, weathering of rocks, release from decay of organic matter and anthropogenic fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation water. In soil, it is present mainly in oxidized state (e.g. SO4) with concentrations varying according to the amount of organic matter in soil. Rich organic soils may have upto 0.5% sulfur by dry weight.

Sulfur in soil may be in bound or unbound form, as organic or inorganic compounds, organic sulfur being most prevalent. Plants take up sulfur from the soil mainly as sulfate and it is passed on with the food chain in the biosphere. It leaves biosphere on death of living organisms when aerobic decay and decomposition brings back sulfate in the soil. Finally, anaerobic decomposition in soil releases part of organic sulfur as H2S, DMS and other organic compounds into the atmosphere. About 7 Tg of sulfur per year is released from global soils, with considerable latitudinal variation. The release of sulfur is dependent upon warmer temperatures.

Sulfur in atmosphere

Several sulfur compounds are released into the atmosphere due to interaction of processes between Earth’s surface and the atmosphere. Of these, most important six compounds are discussed below.

1. Carbonyl sulfide (COS): It is the most abundant sulfur species in atmosphere and in nature is mainly produced by decomposition processes in soil, marshes and wetlands along ocean coasts and areas of ocean upwelling that are rich in nutrients. Anthropogenic combustion processes produce less than 25% of COS. Its average concentration of about 500 pptv shows enough uniformity throughout latitudes and altitudes to suggest a long lifetime and no rapid sinks of this compound. A lifetime of 44 years is suggested with only sink being stratospheric photolysis and slow photochemical reactions in troposphere. Ocean may act both as source and sink. About 80% of total atmospheric sulfur is COS, but it is relatively inert and does not add much to atmospheric sulfur pollution problem.

2. Carbon disulfide (CS2 ):It is far more reactive than COS and has similar sources though on a smaller scale. It has lifetime of 12 days only and its major sink is photochemical reactions. As a result, CS2 shows greater spatial variation across the globe, ranging from 15 pptv in clean air to 190 pptv in polluted air. Its concentration decreases rapidly with altitude. The most important source of the compound is microbial processes in warm tropical soils. Major secondary sources are marshes and wetlands along sea coasts. Small anthropogenic inputs are from fossil fuel combustion.

3. Dimethyl sulfide (DMS): It is released from oceans in much greater amounts than COS or CS2 and has extremely small lifetime and is very rapidly oxidized to sulfur dioxide or is redeposited to oceans. In the sulfur cycle, most of natural gas released from oceans is DMS. Its concentrations are high during night, particularly in areas under some influence from continental sources.

4. Hydrogen sulfide (H2 S): It is mainly produced in nature during anaerobic decay in soils, wetlands, salt marshes and other areas of stagnant water with maximum concentrations occurring over tropical forests. This highly reactive is removed by reaction with hydroxyl radical (OH) and COS. Its highest concentrations occur at night and in early morning when photochemical activity is at a minimum.

4. Sulfur dioxide (SO2 ): Its natural source is oxidation of H2S and major anthropogenic source is combustion of fossil fuels. Its atmospheric concentrations are most influenced by anthropogenic emissions. In some industrialized areas such as eastern North America, over 90% of SO2 is from anthropogenic sources. Normally about half of global SO2 originates from natural sources. The lifetime of the gas is 2-4 days indicating that loss due to photochemical conversion to sulfate is quite important. Rest of the gas (about 45%) is removed from atmosphere by wet and dry deposition.

5. Sulfate aerosol: Sulfate aerosol particles originate from sea spray that is the largest natural source of sulfur to the atmosphere. Only 3 TG per year of sulfate is added to atmosphere from anthropogenic sources directly but much greater amounts are formed through secondary reactions from various sulfur species in atmosphere. Most of the salt spray sulfate falls back to oceans but some is carried over the continents to be included in deposition processes there.

Table-1. Indicative characteristics of major tropospheric sulfur compounds.


Major sources



(Tg Y-1)

Background concentration







coastal marshes, biomass burning


500 pptv




slow photoche-mistry, stratosphere, oceans





15-30 pptv





Photoche-mical production of SO2



algal deposition


<10 pptv





Oceans, oxidation to SO2


Bacterial reduction, soils,



30-100 pptv








sources, volcanoes, oxidation

of H2S


24-90 pptv

>5 ppbv



Wet & dry deposition


Sea-sprays, oxidation

of SO2


0.1 g m-3

>2.5 g m-3



Wet & dry deposition

1 Comment »

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