The Earth may be able to recover from rising carbon dioxide emissions faster than previously thought, according to evidence from a prehistoric event analyzed by a Purdue University-led team.
When faced with high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and rising temperatures 56 million years ago, the Earth increased its ability to pull carbon from the air. This led to a recovery that was quicker than anticipated by many models of the carbon cycle – though still on the order of tens of thousands of years, said Gabriel Bowen, the associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences who led the study.
“We found that more than half of the added carbon dioxide was pulled from the atmosphere within 30,000 to 40,000 years, which is one-third of the time span previously thought,” said Bowen, who also is a member of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. “We still don’t know exactly where this carbon went, but the evidence suggests it was a much more dynamic response than traditional models represent.”
… Plants prefer carbon-12 during photosynthesis, and when they accelerate their uptake of carbon dioxide it shifts the carbon isotope ratio in the atmosphere. This shift is then reflected in the carbon isotopes present in rock minerals formed by reactions involving atmospheric carbon dioxide, Bowen said.
“The rate of the carbon isotope change in rock minerals tells us how rapidly the carbon dioxide was pulled from the atmosphere,” he said. “We can see the fluxes of carbon dioxide in to and out of the atmosphere. At the beginning of the event we see a shift indicating that a lot of organic-derived carbon dioxide had been added to the atmosphere, and at the end of the event we see a shift indicating that a lot of carbon dioxide was taken up as organic carbon and thus removed from the atmosphere.”
A paper detailing the team’s National Science Foundation-funded work was published in Nature Geoscience.