Carbon Cyclers

Small but mighty, the Coccolithophores are one of our favourite species.

The 80m high White Cliffs of Dover on the south coast of England were created almost entirely out of tiny single-celled Coccolithophores deposited in shallow seas during the Cretaceous period of the Earth’s history approximately 1 billion years ago. Sections from the cliffs continuously break off and are washed along the coast ending up as round white rocks which litter our local beach in Margate. They were one of the first things we noticed when we moved here.

The exciting thing for us is that the Coccolithophores are algae that build themselves a protective coat. They produce this calcite (Calcium Carbonate) exoskeleton by combining seawater calcium with bicarbonate inside their body and then passing it to the surface. The intricate symmetries appear more engineered than alive, the overlapping plates look like decorative medieval armour. Different species of Coccolithophore create different styles of ‘liths’ (plates) which create strikingly different forms. The variety achieved is a good example of how design in nature sometimes emerges from a simple chemical process – a process which can result in beautiful form and function.

In building their shells, the Coccolithophores also play a vital part in the world’s carbon cycle. As they build, they capture Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. When they die they sink to the bottom of the ocean forming an ooze layer that can be compacted over millions of years into solid chalk. It is estimated some 35% of the ocean floor is covered in these layers, some several kilometres deep. Eventually, as the earth’s shell warps and bursts into volcanic action the carbon can be released back into the atmosphere. This cycle can take hundreds of millions of years. Next time you use a piece of humble chalk think of what a journey it has been on and the small creatures who created it.

Stephan Harding paints a vivid portrait of this extraordinary cycle in his book Animate Earth which explores Gaian science and interconnectedness between us and the planet. As part of the Daisyworld exhibition, we are planning to hold a Symposium chaired by Dr Sean Clark and featuring Stephen Harding and also, author and integrator, Jeremy Lent. His recent book titled The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, speaks of how humanity can create a sustainable and flourishing future on this planet. We will be discussing the intersections of Technology and Nature, it should be an interesting event.

The interactive toy on this page (click on the red image at the top) was originally designed as a simple tool for teaching the public creative coding. The simple symmetries of the Coccolithophores can be simulated using geometric computer code and then combined into more complex structures.

Creative Coding

Carbon Cycler is programmed in P5JS. This is free and open-source and a web-based part of the Processing family of languages which we have used for all our artworks. Written by artists for artists this environment allows you to easily create visual sketches and animations, and by using webcams and microphones you can make simple interactives.

You can build up from simple lines of code until something richer and lifelike emerges.