Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Before fossil fuels, Earth's minerals kept CO2 in check

Over millions of years carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been moderated by a finely-tuned natural feedback system— a system that human emissions have recently overwhelmed.

A joint University of Hawaii / Carnegie Institution study published in the advance online edition of Nature Geoscience links the pre-human stability to connections between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the breakdown of minerals in the Earth’s crust. While the process occurs far too slowly to have halted the historical buildup of carbon dioxide from human sources, the finding gives scientists new insights into the complexities of the carbon cycle.

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii studied levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 610,000 years using data from gas bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice cores. They used these records, plus geochemical data from ocean sediments, to model how carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by volcanoes and other natural sources is ultimately recycled via carbon-bearing minerals back into the crust.

When carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, the chemical reactions that break down silicate minerals in soils are accelerated. Among the products of these reactions are calcium ions, which dissolve in water and are washed to the ocean by rivers. Marine organisms such as mollusks combine the calcium ions with dissolved carbon dioxide to make their shells (calcium carbonate), which removes both calcium and carbon dioxide from the ocean, restoring the balance.

The researchers found that over hundreds of thousands of years the equilibrium between carbon dioxide input and removal was never more than one to two percent out of balance, a strong indication of a natural feedback system. This natural feedback acts as a thermostat which is critical for the long-term stability of climate. During Earth's history it has probably helped to prevent runaway greenhouse and icehouse conditions over time scales of millions to billions of years — a prerequisite for sustaining liquid water on Earth's surface.

“The system is finely in tune,” says Caldeira. “That one or two percent imbalance works out to an average imbalance in natural carbon dioxide emissions that is thousands of times smaller than our current emissions from industry and the destruction of forests.”

Previous researchers had suggested that such a system existed, but Caldeira and Zeebe’s study provides the first observational evidence supporting the theory, and confirms its role in stabilizing the carbon cycle. But because it operates over such a long time scale—the time scale over which landscapes are eroded and washed to the sea—this geological feedback system offers little comfort with respect to the current climate crisis.

Carbon dioxide is added naturally to the atmosphere and oceans from volcanoes and hydrothermal vents at a rate of about 0.1 billion tons of carbon each year. Human industrial activity and destruction of forests is adding carbon about 100 times faster, approximately 10 billion tons of carbon each year.

“The imbalance in the carbon cycle that we are creating with our emissions is huge compared to the kinds of imbalances seen over the time of the glacial ice core records,” says Caldeira. “We are emitting CO2 far too fast to expect mother nature to mop up our mess anytime soon. Continued burning of coal, oil and gas will result in long-term changes to our climate and to ocean chemistry, lasting many thousands of years.”

Ken Caldeira | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic
24.10.2016 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic

24.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

‘Farming’ bacteria to boost growth in the oceans

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

24.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>