Geochemical Climate Testing
New test results are providing further evidence that the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and Earth's surface temperature are inextricably linked. Nearly thirty-four million years ago, the Earth underwent a transformation from a warm and high-carbon dioxide greenhouse state to a lower-CO2, variable climate of the modern icehouse world. Massive ice sheets grew across the Antarctic continent, major animal groups shifted, and ocean temperatures decreased by up to 5 degrees. Various studies of how this drastic change affected temperatures on land have had mixed results. Some show no appreciable terrestrial climate change; others find cooling of up to 8 degrees and large changes in seasonality. Now, a group of American and British scientists have used a new chemical technique to measure the change in terrestrial temperature associated with this shift in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
Using a new laboratory technique to analyze fossil snail shells, scientists have gained insights into an abrupt climate shift that transformed the planet nearly 34 million years ago.
Their results suggest a drop of as much as 10 C (18 F) for freshwater during the warm season and 6 C (10.8 F) for the atmosphere in the North Atlantic, giving further evidence that the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and Earth's surface temperature are inextricably linked.
The team's findings were published online April 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead author of the paper is Michael Hren, assistant professor of chemistry and geosciences at the University of Connecticut. The U-M co-authors are Nathan Sheldon and Kyger Lohmann of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
"One of the key principles of geology is that the past is the key to the present: records of past climate inform us of how the Earth system functions. By understanding past climate transitions, we can better understand the present and predict impacts for the future," said Hren, a former U-M postdoctoral researcher who worked under Sheldon.
"While our understanding of past changes in the temperature of Earth's oceans is well established, deciphering the environmental conditions of terrestrial settings has remained elusive. With the application of new analytical techniques, it is now possible to illuminate the paired response of the ocean-land system during episodes of global climate change," said Lohmann, the director of the Stable Isotope Laboratory, the first U-M facility to use the "clumped-isotope technique."
The transition between the late Eocene and the Oligocene epochs (between 34 and 33.5 million years ago) was triggered in part by changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide that enabled ice to build up on the Antarctic continent.
The transition between the end of the Eocene and the beginning of the Oligocene, called the Grande Coupure in Europe, is marked by large-scale extinction and floral and faunal turnover (although minor in comparison to the largest mass extinctions). Most of the affected organisms were marine or aquatic in nature.
This was a time of major climatic change, especially cooling, not obviously linked with any single major impact or any major volcanic event. One cause of the extinction event is speculated to be volcanic activity. Another speculation is that the extinctions are related to several meteorite impacts that occurred about this time. The leading scientific theory on climate cooling at this time is a decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which slowly declined in the mid to late Eocene and possibly reached some threshold approximately 34 million years ago.
But much of what is known about this time period's climate comes from cores drilled deep in the ocean. There, organic and inorganic remains of ancient marine creatures retain chemical signatures of ocean temperatures when they were alive.
Now, the U-M researchers and their colleagues have used the recently developed clumped-isotope thermometer technique to examine terrestrial fossil shells from this time period. The team collected fossilized snails from the Isle of Wight, Great Britain, and looked for not just the kind and number of carbon and oxygen isotopes present, but how they were bound together.
The abundance of bonds containing heavy isotopes of both oxygen and carbon are temperature-dependent, so they can give a reliable picture of the climate of terrestrial environments.
"The application of the clumped-isotope technique provides a unique record of temperature change on land where earlier estimates based on other proxies were either imprecise or ambiguous," Lohmann said. "This illuminates the response of the terrestrial climate system during this interval of declining carbon dioxide."
The results are significant in part because they provide further evidence that carbon dioxide is linked to climate not only by way of the vast oceans and their temperature, but by terrestrial temperatures, too, Hren said.
Studies have shown that before this drastic cooling event, Earth's atmosphere contained 1,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide or more. By the end of the transition, it was likely lower than 600-700 ppm. Some predictions, noted Hren, suggest that Earth's current carbon dioxide concentrations, close to 400 ppm and climbing, could increase to nearly 1,000 ppm in the next 100 years.
If that turns out to be the case, it's likely that temperature changes on the scale of the Eocene to Oligocene could occur — but in the other direction, toward a much warmer climate that could again fundamentally alter life on Earth.
For further information see Geochemical.
Snail image by M. Hren via University of Michigan and Connecticut.