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Ancient forests stabilised Earth’s CO2 and climate

UK researchers have identified a biological mechanism that could explain how the Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate were stabilised over the past 24 million years.

When CO2 levels became too low for plants to grow properly, forests appear to have kept the climate in check by slowing down the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The results are now published in Biogeosciences, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Digital images of trenches in a mineral made by networks of fungi
Joe Quirk

“As CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere fall, the Earth loses its greenhouse effect, which can lead to glacial conditions,” explains lead-author Joe Quirk from the University of Sheffield. “Over the last 24 million years, the geologic conditions were such that atmospheric CO2 could have fallen to very low levels – but it did not drop below a minimum concentration of about 180 to 200 parts per million. Why?”

Before fossil fuels, natural processes kept atmospheric carbon dioxide in check. Volcanic eruptions, for example, release CO2, while weathering on the continents removes it from the atmosphere over millions of years. Weathering is the breakdown of minerals within rocks and soils, many of which include silicates. Silicate minerals weather in contact with carbonic acid (rain and atmospheric CO2) in a process that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Further, the products of these reactions are transported to the oceans in rivers where they ultimately form carbonate rocks like limestone that lock away carbon on the seafloor for millions of years, preventing it from forming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Forests increase weathering rates because trees, and the fungi associated with their roots, break down rocks and minerals in the soil to get nutrients for growth. The Sheffield team found that when the CO2 concentration was low – at about 200 parts per million (ppm) – trees and fungi were far less effective at breaking down silicate minerals, which could have reduced the rate of CO2 removal from the atmosphere.

“We recreated past environmental conditions by growing trees at low, present-day and high levels of CO2 in controlled-environment growth chambers,” says Quirk. “We used high-resolution digital imaging techniques to map the surfaces of mineral grains and assess how they were broken down and weathered by the fungi associated with the roots of the trees.”

As reported in Biogeosciences, the researchers found that low atmospheric CO2 acts as a ‘carbon starvation’ brake. When the concentration of carbon dioxide falls from 1500 ppm to 200 ppm, weathering rates drop by a third, diminishing the capacity of forests to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

The weathering rates by trees and fungi drop because low CO2 reduces plants’ ability to perform photosynthesis, meaning less carbon-energy is supplied to the roots and their fungi. This, in turn, means there is less nutrient uptake from minerals in the soil, which slows down weathering rates over millions of years.

“The last 24 million years saw significant mountain building in the Andes and Himalayas, which increased the amount of silicate rocks and minerals on the land that could be weathered over time. This increased weathering of silicate rocks in certain parts of the world is likely to have caused global CO2 levels to fall,” Quirk explains. But the concentration of CO2 never fell below 180-200 ppm because trees and fungi broke down minerals at low rates at those concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“It is important that we understand the processes that affect and regulate climates of the past and our study makes an important step forward in understanding how Earth’s complex plant life has regulated and modified the climate we know on Earth today,” concludes Quirk.

Please mention the name of the publication (Biogeosciences) if reporting on this story and, if reporting online, include a link to the paper or to the journal website (

*More information*
This research is presented in the paper ‘Weathering by tree root-associating fungi diminishes under simulated Cenozoic atmospheric CO2 decline’ to appear in the EGU open access journal Biogeosciences on 23 January 2014. A link to the paper will appear on the release on the EGU website ( at that time.

The scientific article is available online, free of charge, from the publication date onwards, at To obtain a copy of the paper before the publication date, please email Bárbara Ferreira at

The discussion paper (before peer review) and reviewers’ comments are available at

The team is composed of J. Quirk, J. R. Leake, S. A. Banwart, L. L. Taylor and D. J. Beerling, from the University of Sheffield, UK.

The European Geosciences Union ( is Europe’s premier geosciences union, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences for the benefit of humanity, worldwide. It is a non-profit interdisciplinary learned association of scientists founded in 2002. The EGU has a current portfolio of 15 diverse scientific journals, which use an innovative open access format, and organises a number of topical meetings, and education and outreach activities. Its annual General Assembly is the largest and most prominent European geosciences event, attracting over 11,000 scientists from all over the world. The meeting’s sessions cover a wide range of topics, including volcanology, planetary exploration, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, energy, and resources. The 2014 EGU General Assembly is taking place is Vienna, Austria from 27 April to 2 May 2014. For information regarding the press centre at the meeting and media registration, please check

If you wish to receive our press releases via email, please use the Press Release Subscription Form at Subscribed journalists and other members of the media receive EGU press releases under embargo (if applicable) 24 hours in advance of public dissemination.

Dr. Joe Quirk
Post Doctoral Research Associate
Department of Animal and Plant Sciences
University of Sheffield, UK
Tel: +44 (0)114 22 20093
Prof. David Beerling (Principal Investigator)
Department of Animal and Plant Sciences
University of Sheffield, UK
Tel: +44 (0)114 22 24359
Bárbara Ferreira
EGU Media and Communications Manager
Munich, Germany
Tel: +49-89-2180-6703
Weitere Informationen:

Dr. Bárbara Ferreira | European Geosciences Union
Further information:

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