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Sources and Sinks

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Posted March 18, 2019

For the entire history of our species, humans have lived on a planet capped by a chunk of ice at each pole. But Earth has been ice-free for about 75 percent of the time since complex life first appeared. This variation in background climate, between partly glaciated and ice-free, has puzzled geologists for decades.

Now a team of scientists led by UC Santa Barbara’s Francis Macdonald has published a study suggesting that tectonic activity may be the culprit. They found that long-term trends in Earth’s climate are set by the presence or absence of collisions between volcanic arcs and continents in the tropics. The results appear in the journal Science.

Image credit: Patrick Kelley CC by 2.0 , Anand Osuri CC BY-SA 4.0 via UCSB

“There’ve been a few hypotheses but no agreements as to why we have warmer or colder climates on these very long timescales,” said Macdonald, a professor in the Department of Earth Science.

And when Macdonald says “long timescales,” he’s talking about 10 million-year periods, at a minimum. These are broad climatic trends, the backdrop against which natural and human-made fluctuations play out. Scientists have a relatively good understanding of what factors influence the climate on a thousand-year timescale, according to Macdonald.

On any scale, though, the primary agent of climate change is carbon dioxide (CO2). The question is what factors influence the amount of CO2 in atmosphere. Some processes produce CO2, while others absorb it. Scientists call these sources and sinks.

The debate among geologists is whether sources or sinks affect the climate more. “Some have argued that CO2 sources, like volcanism, have driven climate change on long timescales, while others have argued that, no, it’s the sinks that have caused climate change on these timescales,” said Macdonald.

He believes it’s mostly the sinks, specifically vast deposits of rock that absorb CO2 through chemical reactions. But these carbon sinks are not distributed evenly across the surface. For instance, greater Indonesia is only 1-2 percent of the Earth’s exposed land area, but accounts for roughly 10 percent of the current geologic carbon sink.

The activity of these sinks depends on a number of factors. Water is important for the chemical reactions and also washes the end results away into the oceans, where they consume CO2. Mountain-building increases the reactions by uplifting and exposing new rock. In flat terrain, the soil shields the underlying rock.

Rock type also plays a key role. Stone rich in iron and magnesium has simpler chemical bonds that are more easily broken down. This makes these mafic rocks, like basalt, better carbon sinks than rocks such as granite, which have more complex bonds.

Plate tectonics is what drives this geologic carbon cycle. When one tectonic plate slides under another — usually a dense ocean plate under a continent — the melting rock fuels a row of volcanoes on the top plate called a volcanic arc. The Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest is one example of this.

The dense ocean crust melts as it slides under the continent, fueling a volcanic arc. Image credit: Domdomegg CC by 4.0 via UCSB

Macdonald and his colleagues reckoned that when these volcanic arcs collide with another continent, the collision uplifts mafic rocks. These rocks are readily eroded, particularly in warm, wet, tropical latitudes, and the sediment is sent out to oceans where it consumes CO2. So, he reasoned, when these collisions happen in the tropics, they drive the climate toward cooling.

“The tropics are where the rocks weather best because it’s the warmest and wettest,” explained coauthor Lorraine Lisiecki, an associate professor also in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Earth Science.

To test their hypothesis, the team used reconstructions of the continents and mountain-building events that scientists had built up over the past decades. This gave them an idea where and when arc-continent collisions happened. They limited themselves to the last 500 million years, since the geologic record is much less complete, and reconstructions less certain, before that time.

Temperature is harder to get a read on than geography, so the team used a simple metric: Was there ice on the poles at a given time or not? They reconstructed this information from the literature by looking at data on rocks that form only in the presence of ice. What they found was that Earth had significant ice cover during only four periods in their time window.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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