Deep sea carbon reservoirs once superheated the Earth – could it happen again?
Posted by admin on 9th May 2019
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As concern grows over human-induced climate change, many scientists are looking back through Earth’s history to events that can shed light on changes occurring today. Analyzing how the planet’s climate system has changed in the past improves our understanding of how it may behave in the future.

It is now clear from these studies that abrupt warming events are built into Earth’s climate system. They have occurred when disturbances in carbon storage at Earth’s surface released greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. One of the grand challenges for climate scientists like me is to determine where these releases came from before humans were present, and what triggered them. Importantly, we want to know if such an event could happen again.

In a recently published study, my colleagues Katie Harazin, Nadine Krupinski and I discovered that at the end of the last glacial era, about 20,000 years ago, carbon dioxide was released into the ocean from geologic reservoirs located on the seafloor when the oceans began to warm.

This finding is a potential game-changer. Naturally occurring reservoirs of carbon in the modern ocean could be disturbed again, with potentially serious effects to Earth’s oceans and climate.

Earth has cycled between ice ages (low points) and warm interglacial periods over the past 800,000 years. But current climatic warming is occurring much faster than past warming events.
NASA

The past is prologue

One of the best-known examples of a rapid warming caused by release of geologic carbon is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, a major global warming event that occured about 55 million years ago. During the PETM, the Earth warmed by 9 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 9 degrees Celsius) within about 10,000 years.

Climate scientists now consider the PETM to be an analog for environmental changes taking place today. The PETM happened over a longer period and without human involvement, but it shows that there is inherent instability in the climate system if carbon from geologic reservoirs is released rapidly.

Scientists also know that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose rapidly at the end of each of the late Pleistocene ice ages, helping to warm the climate. During the most recent warming episode, 17,000 years ago, the Earth warmed by 9 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 7 degrees Celsius).

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