Friday, October 16, 2009

A 20 Million Year History Of Atmospheric CO2

From Brave Blue Words I found out a day late that yesterday was Blog Action Day for Climate Change. Bloggers all over the world are writing about various aspects of climate change.

Being a geologist I want to point to a study that reconstructs atmospheric CO2 levels as far back as the Miocene  - a 20 million year history. Atmospheric CO2 levels have been reconstructed with some confidence for the last 800,000 years or so using gas bubbles trapped in the Antarctic ice sheets. Before that the data was thin.

Aradhna Tripati and colleagues have used the boron to calcium ratio in foraminifera shells to calculate ancient CO2 levels. As atmospheric CO2 increases some of it diffuses into the ocean increasing the dissolved CO2 content of sea-water. That in turn reduces the amount of boron that is incorporated in a growing calcium carbonate shell of the foraminifer individual. The variation in the boron to calcium ratio over time as recorded in foraminfera fossils of different ages should tell us something about transitions in CO2 levels.

The scientists first validated their calculations using the 800 K record of CO2 trapped in ice. They compared their results with those obtained by the direct measurement of CO2 trapped in gas bubbles. It was a good match. The scientists calculate that the uncertainty in their results is about 14 parts per million.

Their results show that there is a close coupling between CO2 levels, sea-level and temperature over the last 20 million years.  In the middle Miocene (~ 20 ma) CO2 levels were about 400 ppm - comparable to modern levels - and that sea-levels at that time were 30 -40 meters higher than today (geologists estimate this using distribution of ancient shorelines), with temperatures about 3-6 deg C higher (using geochemical proxies like the oxygen isotope composition of shells which depend partly on temperature of the water from which they precipitate). Decreases in CO2 levels in the later part of Miocene and Pliocene were synchronous with major episodes of cooling and glacial expansion.

Its important to establish that historical connection to answer doubts expressed on what exact impact would increasing levels of CO2 have on climate and sea-level. Many climate change doubters are not happy with computer simulations and models of CO2 increase and climate change. This study shows that CO2 has been a strong driver and amplifier of climate change in the deep geological past. History is also a guide and often a reliable one.

Go here for the press release.A minor quibble. The press release calls the shells used by the scientists as belonging to single celled marine algae. Foraminifera are not algae. They are protists.

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