Today’s Climate More Sensitive to Carbon Dioxide Than in Past 12 Million Years
Geologic record shows evolution in Earth’s climate system
The phytoplankton Emiliania huxleyi offers clues about climate past, present and future.
Until now, studies of Earth’s climate have documented a strong correlation between global climate and atmospheric carbon dioxide; that is, during warm periods, high concentrations of CO2 persist, while colder times correspond to relatively low levels.
However, in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, paleoclimate researchers reveal that about 12-5 million years ago climate was decoupled from atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. New evidence of this comes from deep-sea sediment cores dated to the late Miocene period of Earth’s history.
During that time, temperatures across a broad swath of the North Pacific were 9-14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today, while atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations remained low–near values prior to the Industrial Revolution.
The research shows that, in the last five million years, changes in ocean circulation allowed Earth’s climate to become more closely coupled to changes in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
The findings also demonstrate that the climate of modern times more readily responds to changing carbon dioxide levels than it has during the past 12 million years.
“This work represents an important advance in understanding how Earth’s past climate may be used to predict future climate trends,” says Jamie Allan, program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.
The research team, led by Jonathan LaRiviere and Christina Ravelo of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), generated the first continuous reconstructions of open-ocean Pacific temperatures during the late Miocene epoch.
It was a time of nearly ice-free conditions in the Northern Hemisphere and warmer-than-modern conditions across the continents.
The research relies on evidence of ancient climate preserved in microscopic plankton skeletons–called microfossils–that long-ago sank to the sea-floor and ultimately were buried beneath it in sediments.
Samples of those sediments were recently brought to the surface in cores drilled into the ocean bottom. The cores were retrieved by marine scientists working aboard the drillship JOIDES Resolution.
The microfossils, the scientists discovered, contain clues to a time when the Earth’s climate system functioned much differently than it does today.
“It’s a surprising finding, given our understanding that climate and carbon dioxide are strongly coupled to each other,” LaRiviere says.
“In the late Miocene, there must have been some other way for the world to be warm. One possibility is that large-scale patterns in ocean circulation, determined by the very different shape of the ocean basins at the time, allowed warm temperatures to persist despite low levels of carbon dioxide.”
The Pacific Ocean in the late Miocene was very warm, and the thermocline, the boundary that separates warmer surface waters from cooler underlying waters, was much deeper than in the present.
The scientists suggest that this deep thermocline resulted in a distribution of atmospheric water vapor and clouds that could have maintained the warm global climate.
“The results explain the seeming paradox of the warm–but low greenhouse gas–world of the Miocene,” says Candace Major, program director in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences.
Several major differences in the world’s waterways could have contributed to the deep thermocline and the warm temperatures of the late Miocene.
For example, the Central American Seaway remained open, the Indonesian Seaway was much wider than it is now, and the Bering Strait was closed.
These differences in the boundaries of the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, would have resulted in very different circulation patterns than those observed today.
By the onset of the Pliocene epoch, about five million years ago, the waterways and continents of the world had shifted into roughly the positions they occupy now.
That also coincides with a drop in average global temperatures, a shoaling of the thermocline, and the appearance of large ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere–in short, the climate humans have known throughout recorded history.
“This study highlights the importance of ocean circulation in determining climate conditions,” says Ravelo. “It tells us that the Earth’s climate system has evolved, and that climate sensitivity is possibly at an all-time high.”
Other co-authors of the paper are Allison Crimmins of UCSC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Petra Dekens of UCSC and San Francisco State University; Heather Ford of UCSC; Mitch Lyle of Texas A&M University; and Michael Wara of UCSC and Stanford University.
Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew Wright, Consortium for Ocean Leadership (202) 448-1254 email@example.com
Integrated Ocean Drilling Program: http://www.iodp.org
JOIDES Resolution: http://joidesresolution.org/
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget is $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
Late Miocene decoupling of oceanic warmth and atmospheric carbon dioxide forcing
Jonathan P. LaRiviere, A. Christina Ravelo, Allison Crimmins, Petra S. Dekens, Heather L. Ford, Mitch Lyle & Michael W. Wara
Nature 486, 97–100 (07 June 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11200
Received 15 November 2011 Accepted 02 May 2012 Published online 06 June 2012
Deep-time palaeoclimate studies are vitally important for developing a complete understanding of climate responses to changes in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (that is, the atmospheric partial pressure of CO2, pco2)1. Although past studies have explored these responses during portions of the Cenozoic era (the most recent 65.5 million years (Myr) of Earth history), comparatively little is known about the climate of the late Miocene (~12–5 Myr ago), an interval with pco2 values of only 200–350 parts per million by volume but nearly ice-free conditions in the Northern Hemisphere2, 3 and warmer-than-modern temperatures on the continents4. Here we present quantitative geochemical sea surface temperature estimates from the Miocene mid-latitude North Pacific Ocean, and show that oceanic warmth persisted throughout the interval of low pco2 ~12–5 Myr ago. We also present new stable isotope measurements from the western equatorial Pacific that, in conjunction with previously published data5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, reveal a long-term trend of thermocline shoaling in the equatorial Pacific since ~13 Myr ago. We propose that a relatively deep global thermocline, reductions in low-latitude gradients in sea surface temperature, and cloud and water vapour feedbacks may help to explain the warmth of the late Miocene. Additional shoaling of the thermocline after 5 Myr ago probably explains the stronger coupling between pco2, sea surface temperatures and climate that is characteristic of the more recent Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs11, 12.