Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The carbon cycle before humans: New studies provide clearer picture of how carbon cycle was dramatically affected long ago

Science Daily: Geoengineering -- deliberate manipulation of the Earth's climate to slow or reverse global warming -- has gained a foothold in the climate change discussion. But before effective action can be taken, the Earth's natural biogeochemical cycles must be better understood.

Two Northwestern University studies, both published online recently by Nature Geoscience, contribute new -- and related -- clues as to what drove large-scale changes to the carbon cycle nearly 100 million years ago. Both research teams conclude that a massive amount of volcanic activity introduced carbon dioxide and sulfur into the atmosphere, which in turn had a significant impact on the carbon cycle, oxygen levels in the oceans and marine plants and animals.

…This work found that before the onset of ocean anoxia, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by approximately 20 percent. This significant increase is consistent with the volcanic activity invoked by the first Northwestern study (described above). The paleo-carbon dioxide reconstruction also detected two episodes of marked decrease in carbon dioxide levels -- up to 200 parts per million -- at the time of the early phase of marine carbon burial. This observation provides strong support for the carbon dioxide drawdown hypothesis.

"Our research highlights the previously unappreciated role that the sulfur cycle plays in regulating nutrient cycling, the carbon cycle and climate," said Matthew Hurtgen, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and lead researcher of the first study.

"These two complementary studies provide a much clearer picture of how the Earth's carbon cycle was dramatically affected by catastrophic natural events long ago," said Bradley Sageman, professor and chair of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern and a co-author of both papers. "Although these events played out over hundreds or thousands of years, the magnitude of the changes, in carbon dioxide levels for example, are similar to those of the last 150 years resulting from human influence on the carbon cycle. The evidence demonstrates that the modern carbon cycle has been accelerated by orders of magnitude."…

The first historic eruption of Galunggung in West Java, Indonesia, was in 1822. Since then the volcano has erupted four times, most recently in 1982. This photo shows a column of ash rising above the summit during the large (VEI=4) Vulcanian-type eruption. Eruption columns at Galunggung reached heights as great as 15 miles (24 km). Photo by Jack Lockwood, U.S. Geological Survey, August 16, 1982.

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