Tag Archives: climate change

Ancient CO2 estimates worry climatologists

Concerns about impending, indeed actual, anthropogenic climate change brought on by rapidly rising levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide have spurred efforts to quantify climates of the distant past. Beyond the CO2 record of the last 800 ka established from air bubbles trapped in glacial ice palaeoclimate researchers have had to depend on a range of proxies for the greenhouse effect. Those based on models linking plate tectonic and volcanic CO2 emissions with geological records of the burial of organic matter, weathering and limestone accumulation are imprecise in the extreme, although they hint at considerable variation during the Phanerozoic. Other proxies give a better idea of the past abundance of the main greenhouse gas, one using the curious openings or stomata in leaves that allow gases to pass to and fro between plant cells and the atmosphere. Well preserved fossil leaves show stomata nicely back to about 400 Ma ago when plants first colonised the land.

Stomata on a rice leaf (credit: Getty images)

Stomata draw in CO2 so that it can be combined with water during photosynthesis to form carbohydrate. So the number of stomata per unit area of a leaf surface is expected to increase with lowering of atmospheric CO2 and vice versa. This has been observed in plants grown in different air compositions. By comparing stomatal density in fossilised leaves of modern plants back to 800 ka allows the change to be calibrated against the ice-core record. Extending this method through the Cenozoic, the Mesozoic and into the Upper Palaeozoic faces the problems of using fossils of long-extinct plant leaves. This is compounded by plants’ exhalation of gases to the atmosphere – some CO2 together with other products of photosynthesis, oxygen and water vapour. Increasing stomatal density when carbon dioxide is at low concentration risks dehydration. How extinct plant groups coped with this problem is, unsurprisingly, unknown. So past estimates of the composition of the air become increasingly reliant on informed guesswork rather than proper calibration. The outcome is that results from the distant past tend to show very large ranges of CO2 values at any particular time.

An improvement was suggested some years back by Peter Franks of the University of Sydney with Australian, US and British co-workers (Franks, P.J. et al. 2014. New constraints on atmospheric CO2 concentration for the Phanerozoic. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 41, p. 4685-4694; doi:10.1002/2014GL060457). Their method included a means of assessing the back and forth exchange of leaf gases with the atmosphere from measurements of the carbon isotopes in preserved organic carbon in the fossil leaves, and combined this with stomatal density and the actual shape of stomata. Not only did this narrow the range of variation in atmospheric CO2 results for times past, but the mean values were dramatically lessened. Rather than values ranging up to 2000 to 3000 parts per million (~ 10 times the pre-industrial value) in the Devonian and the late-Triassic and early-Jurassic, the gas-exchange method does not rise above 1000 ppm in the Phanerozoic.

The upshot of these findings strongly suggests that the Earth’s climate sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 (the amount of global climatic warming for a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 concentration) may be greater than previously thought; around 4° rather than the currently accepted 3°C. If this proves to be correct it forebodes a much higher global temperature than present estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for various emission scenarios through the 21st century.

See also: Hand, E. 2017. Fossil leaves bear witness to ancient carbon dioxide levels. Science, v. 355, p. 14-15; DOI: 10.1126/science.355.6320.14.

Out of Africa: a little less blurred?

DNA from the mitochondria of humans who live on all the habitable continents shows such a small variability that all of us must have had a common maternal ancestor, and she lived in Africa about 160 ka ago. Since this was first suggested by Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking and Allan Wilson of the University of California, Berkeley in 1987 there has been a stream of data and publications – subsequently using Y-chromosome DNA and even whole genomes – that both confirm an African origin for Homo sapiens and illuminate it. Analyses of the small differences in global human genetics also chart the routes and – using a ‘molecular clock’ technique – the timings of geographic and population branchings during migration out of Africa. As more and better quality data emerges so the patterns change and become more intricate: an illustration of the view that ‘the past is always a work in progress’. The journal Nature published four papers online in the week ending 25 September 2016 that demonstrate the ‘state of the art’.

Three of these papers add almost 800 new, high-quality genomes to the 1000 Genomes Project that saw completion in 2015. The new data cover 270 populations from around the world including those of regions that have previously been understudied for a variety of reasons: Africa, Australia and Papua-New Guinea. All three genomic contributions are critically summarized by a Nature News and Views article (Tucci, S & Akey, J.L. 2016. A map of human wanderlust. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature19472). The fourth paper pieces together accurately dated fossil and archaeological findings with data on climate and sea-level changes derived mainly from isotopic analyses of marine sediments and samples from polar ice sheets (Timmermann, A & Friedrich, T. 2016. Late Pleistocene climate drivers of early human migration. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature19365). Axel Timmermann and Tobias Friedrich of the University of Hawaii have attempted to simulate the overall dispersal of humans during the last 125 ka according to how they adapted to environmental conditions; mainly the changing vegetation cover as aridity varied geographically, together with the opening of potential routes out of Africa via the Straits of Bab el Mandab and through what is now termed the Middle East or Levant. They present their results as a remarkable series of global maps that suggest both the geographic spread of human migrants and how population density may have changed geographically through the last glacial cycle. Added to this are maps of the times of arrival of human populations across the world, according to a variety of migration scenarios. Note: the figure below estimates when AMH may have arrived in different areas and the population densities that environmental conditions at different times could have supported had they done so. Europe is shown as being possibly settled at around 70-75 ka, and perhaps having moderately high densities for AMH populations. Yet no physical evidence of European AMH is known before about 40 ka. Anatomically modern humans could have been in Europe before that time but failed to diffuse towards it, or were either repelled by or assimilated completely into its earlier Neanderthal population: perhaps the most controversial aspect of the paper.


Estimated arrival time since the last continuous settlement of anatomically modern human migrants from Africa (top); estimated population densities around 60 thousand years ago. (Credit: Axel Timmermann University of Hawaii)

The role of climate change and even major volcanic activity – the 74 ka explosion of Toba in Indonesia – in both allowing or forcing an exodus from African homelands and channelling the human ‘line of march’ across Eurasia has been speculated on repeatedly. Now Timmermann and Friedrich have added a sophisticated case for episodic waves of migration across Arabia and the Levant at 106-94, 89-73, 59-47 and 45-29 ka. These implicate the role of Milankovich’s 21 ka cycle of Earth’s axial precession in opening windows of opportunity for both the exodus and movement through Eurasia; effectively like opening and closing valves for the flow of human movement. The paper is critically summarised by a Nature News and Views article (de Menocal, P.B. & Stringer, C. 2016. Climate and peopling of the world. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature19471.

This multiple-dispersal model for the spread of anatomically modern humans (AMH) finds some support from one of the genome papers (Pangani, L. and 98 others 2016. Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia. Nature (online). http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature19792). A genetic signature in present-day Papuans suggests that at least 2% of their genome originates from an early and largely extinct expansion of AMH from Africa about 120 ka ago, compared with a split of all mainland Eurasians from African at around 75 ka. It appears from Pangani and co-workers’ analyses that later dispersals out of Africa contributed only a small amount of ancestry to Papuan individuals. The other two genome analyses (Mallick, S. and 79 others 2016. The Simons Genome Diversity Project: 300 genomes from 142 diverse populations. Nature (online) http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature18964; Malaspinas, A.-S. and 74 others 2016. A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia. Nature (online). http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature18299) suggest a slightly different scenario, that all present-day non-Africans branched from a single ancestral population. In the case of Malaspinas et al. an immediate separation of two waves of AMH migrants led to settlement of Australasia in one case and to the rest of Mainland Eurasia. Yet their data suggest that Australasians diverged into Papuan and Australian population between 25-40 ka ago. Now that is a surprise, because during the lead-up to the last glacial maximum at around 20 ka, sea level dropped to levels that unified the exposed surfaces of Papua and Australia, making it possible to walk from one to the other. These authors appeal to a vast hypersaline lake in the emergent plains, which may have deterred crossing the land bridge. Mallick et al. see an early separation between migrants from Africa who separately populated the west and east of Eurasia, with possible separation of Papuans and Australians from the second group.  These authors also show that the rate at which Eurasians accumulated mutations was about 5% faster than happened among Africans. Interestingly, Mallick et al. addressed the vexed issue of the origin of the spurt in cultural, particularly artistic, creativity after 50 ka that characterizes Eurasian archaeology. Although their results do not rule out genetic changes outside Africa linked to cultural change, they commented as follows:

‘… however, genetics is not a creative force, and instead responds to selection pressures imposed by novel environmental conditions or lifestyles. Thus, our results provide evidence against a model in which one or a few mutations were responsible for the rapid developments in human behaviour in the last 50,000 years. Instead, changes in lifestyles due to cultural innovation or exposure to new environments are likely to have been driving forces behind the rapid transformations in human behaviour …’.

Variations in interpretation among the four papers undoubtedly stem from the very different analytical approaches to climate and genomic data sets, and variations within the individual sets of DNA samples. So it will probably be some time before theoretical studies of the drivers of migration and work on global human genomics and cultural development find themselves unified. And we await with interest the pooling of results from all the different genetics labs and agreement on a common data-mining approach.

Focus on glaciation…and avoid physics envy

About 1.3 billion years ago two small black holes, each weighing in at about 30 solar masses, ran into one another and fused. At that time Earthly life forms had neither mouths nor anuses, nor even a nervous system, and they were not much bigger than a sand grain. The distant collision involved  rapid acceleration of considerable masses. A century ago Albert Einstein predicted that the movement of any matter in the universe should perturb space-time in a wave-like form that travels at the same speed as light. Well, he was right for, at 9:50:45 universal time on 14 September 2015, four exquisitely engineered mirrors deployed in the two set-ups of a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana and Washington states in the US minutely shuddered, first in the Deep South and 0.007 seconds later in the Pacific Northwest. The signal lasted 0.25 seconds and, when rendered as sound, comprised a sort of chirrup starting at 35 Hz and rising to 250 Hz before an abrupt end. Five months later, and silent internationally shared theoretical verification, the story was released to the back slapping, stamping and pawing the air that we have come to expect from clever, ambitious and persuasive people who have spent a great deal of our money and have something to show for it. So now we know that the universe is probably throbbing – albeit very, very, very quietly – with gravitational waves generated by every single motion that has taken place in the whole of ‘recorded’ history since the Big Bang. Indeed, it is claimed, LIGO-like machines may one day detect the big wave itself if, that is, it hasn’t already passed through the solar system. Recall, 13.7 billion years ago the Big Bang didn’t take much longer than this comparatively mundane collision at 1.3 Ga . Physicists are going to have a lot to ponder on now they have a lever to get yet greater funds. To put all this in perspective, the detected chirrup had been traveling for 1.3 Ga, and so too must the actual place in the universe where it took place: I guess we will never know where it is now or what damage or otherwise may have been visited upon planetary systems in its vicinity, if indeed it had even the slightest recognisable geological or ecological consequence.

So, onto the mundane world of glaciology and climate change.

Tibet is the third greatest repository of glacial ice on the surface of the Earth’s continents. It is the focus of one of the planet’s greatest climatic system, the South Asian. While much of the Plateau hasn’t borne glaciers continuously throughout even the last glacial cycle, it is becoming clear that its western margin has remained cold enough to retain ice throughout an even longer period. In the Kunlun mountains is a 200 km2 ice cap known as the Guliya. At the start of detailed glacial stratigraphic ventures in 1990s, focused mainly on Greenland and Antarctica, analysis of a core from the Guliya ice cap yielded dates extending back to 130 ka, before the start if the last interglacial. This section lies above ice that at the time could not be dated reliably other than to show that it may be older than about 750 ka. This stemmed from its lack of the radioactive 36Cl formed, similarly to 14C, by cosmic-ray interactions with stable 35Cl in atmospheric salt aerosols: such cosmogenic chlorine can be used for radiometric dating of ice younger than 750 ka.

A News Feature in the 29 January issue of Science (Qiu, J. 2016. Tibet’s primeval ice. Science, v. 351, p. 436-439) focused on the preliminary results of an expedition, led by Yao Tandong of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Beijing and Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University, Columbus, to drill a further five ice cores at Guliya in September 2015, one of which penetrated ove 300 m of glacial ice. It is now possible to date ice layers back to a million years using argon isotopes. Combined with stable isotope and other measurements through the cores, the dating should provide a huge amount of new information on the evolution of the monsoon, which is currently understood only vaguely. Such information would sharpen models of how the monsoon system works and even hint at how it might change during a period of anthropogenic warming. An estimated 1.4 billion people – a fifth of humanity – who live in the Indian subcontinent, China and SE Asia depend for their food-production on the monsoon.

With less humanitarian urgency but equally fascinating is the discovery that, as well as sea-ice, the central Arctic Ocean once hosted vast ice shelves during the last-but-one glacial episode (Jakobsson, M. and 24 others 2016. Evidence for an ice shelf covering the central Arctic Ocean during the penultimate glaciations. Nature Communications, v. 7, doi:10.1038/ncomms10365. Clues emerged from multibeam sonar bathymetry that created detailed images of topography on the floor of the Arctic Ocean. These revealed sets of parallel ridges on the shallowest parts of the polar basin, thought to have formed when moving ice shelves grounded. The depths of the grooved areas indicate ice thicknesses up to and exceeding 1 km. The grooves look very similar to the large-scale lineaments that formed on the surface of the Canadian Shield when the Laurentide ice sheet ground its way from zones of glacial accumulation. Grounding of an ice shelf would have resulted in its thickening in the upflow direction as a result of plastic deformation of the ice, tending to lock the flow and direct ice escape over the deeper parts of the Arctic basin.

Antarctic Ice Shelf

Antarctic Ice Shelf (credit: Wikipedia)

Back-tracking the grooves defines the ice shelf’s source regions in the northern Canadian islands, north Scandinavia and the lowlands of eastern Siberia as well as regional flow patterns and the extent of floating continental ice. The last is a major surprise: at over 4 million km2 it was four times larger than all modern Antarctic ice shelves. The ice moved to ‘escape’ to the North Atlantic Ocean through the Fram Strait between East Greenland and Svalbard (Spitzbergen). Dating sediment stratigraphy in the grooved areas using magnetic and fossil data shows that the ice shelves existed between 160 and 140 ka during the penultimate glacial maximum. For such a mass of glacial ice to be expelled into the Arctic Ocean implies that a great deal more snow fell on its fringes then than during the last glacial maximum. Another possibility is that the huge mass of floating ice regulated the salinity and density of the upper Atlantic in a different way from the periodic iceberg ‘armadas’ that characterized the last glacial epoch and help account for a whole number of sudden warming and cooling events.

Domack, E. 2016. A great Arctic ice shelf. Nature, v. 530, p. 163-164.

The core’s influence on geology: how does it do it?

Although no one can be sure about the details of processes in the Earth’s core what is accepted by all is that changes in core dynamics cause the geomagnetic field to change in strength and polarity, probably through some kind of physical interaction between core and deep mantle at the core-mantle boundary (CMB). Throughout the last 73 Ma and especially during the Cenozoic Era geomagnetism has been more fickle than at any time since a more or less continuous record began to be preserved in the Jurassic to Recent magnetic ‘stripes’ of the world ocean floor. Moreover, they came in bursts: 5 in a million years at around 72 Ma; 10 in 4 Ma centred on 54 Ma; 17 over 3 Ma around 42 Ma; 13 in 3 Ma at ~24 Ma; 51 over a period of 12 Ma centring on 15 Ma. During the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous the core was similarly ‘busy’, the two time spans of frequent reversals being preceded by quiet ‘superchrons’ dominated by the same normal polarity as we have today i.e. magnetic north being roughly around the north geographic pole.

The Cenozoic history of magnetic reversals - black periods were when geomagnetic field polarity was normal and white when reversed. (credit: Wikipedia)

The Cenozoic history of magnetic reversals – black periods were when geomagnetic field polarity was normal and white when reversed. (credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently geomagnetic ‘flips’ between the two superchrons were regarded as random , perhaps suggesting chaotic behaviour at the CMB. But such a view depends on the statistical method used. A novel approach to calculating reversal frequency through time, however, shows peak-trough pairs recurring 5 times through the Cenozoic Era, approximately 13 Ma apart: maybe the chaos is illusory (Chane, J. et al. 2015. The 13 million year Cenozoic pulse of the Earth. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 431, p. 256-263). So, here is a kind of yardstick to see if there may be any connection between core processes and those at the surface, which Chen of the Fujian Normal University, Fushou China and Canadian and Chinese colleagues compared with the very detailed Cenozoic oxygen-isotope (δ18O) record preserved by foraminifera in ocean-floor sediments, which is a well established proxy for changes in climate. Removing the broad trend of cooling through the Cenozoic resulted in a plot of more intricate climatic shifts that matches the geomagnetism record in both shape and timing of peak-trough pairs. It also turns out, or so the authors claim, that both measures correlate with changes in the rate of Cenozoic subduction of oceanic lithosphere (a measure of plate tectonic activity), albeit negative – peaks in magnetism and climate connecting with slowing in the pace of tectonics.

The analyses involved some complicated maths, but taken at face value the correlations beg the questions why and how? Long-term climate change contains an astronomical signal, encapsulated in the Milankovich hypothesis which has been tested again and again with little room for refutation. So is this all to do with gravitational influences in the Solar System. More exotic still is the possibility of 13 Ma cyclicity linking the Milankovich mechanism with the vaster scale of the Sun’s orbit oscillating through the disc of the Milky Way galaxy and theoretical hints of a mysterious role for dark matter in or near the galaxy. Or, is it a relationship in which climate and the magnetic field are modulated by plate tectonics through varying volcanic emissions of greenhouse gases and the deep effect of subduction on processes at the CMB respectively? To me that seems more plausible, but it is still as exceedingly complex as the maths used to reveal the correlations.

Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions – were humans to blame?

Australia and the Americas had an extremely diverse fauna of large beasts (giant wombats and kangeroos in Australia; elephants, bears, big cats, camelids, ground sloths etc in the Americas) until the last glaciation and the warming period that led into the Holocene interglacial. The majority of these megafauna species vanished suddenly during that recent period. To a lesser extent something similar happened in Eurasia, but nothing significant in Africa. Because the last glacial cycle also saw migration of efficient human hunter-gatherers to every other continent except Antarctica, many ecologists, palaeontologists and anthropologists saw a direct link between human predation and the mass extinction (see Earth-Pages of April 2012. Earlier humans had indeed spread far and wide in Eurasia before, and the crude hypothesis that the last arrivals in Australasia and the Americas devoured all the meatiest prey in three continents had some traction as a result: predation in Eurasia and Africa by earlier hominids would have made surviving prey congenitally wary of bipeds with spears. In Australia and the Americas the megafauna species would have been naive and confident in their sheer bulk, numbers, speed and, in some cases, ferocity. Other possibilities emerged, such as the introduction of viruses to which faunas had no immunity or as a result of climate change, but none of the three possibilities has gained incontrovertible proof. But the most popular, human connection has had severe knocks in the last couple of years. A fourth, that the extinctions stemmed from a comet impact proved to have little traction.

English: s were driven to extinction by and hu...

Megafauna in a late-Pleistocene landscape including woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, horses, and cave lions with a carcass. (credit: Wikipedia)

Since the amazing success of analysing the bulk DNA debris in sea water – environmental DNA or eDNA – to look at the local diversity of marine animals, the analytical and computing techniques that made it possible have been turned to ancient terrestrial materials: soils, permafrost and glacial ice. One of the first attempts revealed mammoth and pre-Columbian horse DNA surviving in Alaskan permafrost, thanks to the herds’ copious urination and dung spreading. Several articles in the 24 July 2015 issue of Science review ancient DNA advances, including eDNA from soils that chart changes in both fauna and flora over the last glacial cycle (Pennisi, E. 2015. Lost worlds found. Science, v. 349, p. 367-369). Combined with a variety of means of dating the material that yield the ancient eDNA, an interesting picture is emerging. The soil and permafrost samples potentially express ancient ecosystems in far more detail than would fossil animals or pollens, many of which are too similar to look at the species level and in any case are dominated by the most abundant plants rather than showing those critical in the food chain.

Nunavut tundra

Plants of the Arctic tundra in Nunavut, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first major success in palaeoecology of this kind came with a 50-author paper using eDNA ‘bar-coding’ of permafrost from 242 sites in Siberia and Alaska IWillerslev, E. and 49 others 2014. Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet. Nature, v. 506, p. 47-51. doi:10.1038/nature12921). Dividing the samples into 3 time spans – 50-25, 25-15 (last glacial maximum) and younger than 15 ka – the team found these major stages in the last glacial cycle mapped an ecological change from a dry tundra dominated by abundant herbaceous plants (forbs including abundant anemones and forget-me-not), to a markedly depleted Arctic steppe ecosystem then moist tundra with woody plants and grasses dominating. They also analysed the eDNA of dung and gut contents from ice-age megafauna, such as mammoths, bison and woolly rhinos, where these were found, which showed that forbs were the mainstay of their diet. Using bones of large mammals 6 member of the team also established the timing of extinctions in the last 56 ka (Cooper, A. et al. 2015. Abrupt warming events drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4315), showing 31 regional extinction pulses linked to the rapid ups and downs of climate during Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles in the run-up to the last glacial maximum. By the end of the last glacial maximum, the megafauna were highly stressed by purely climatic and ecological factors. Human predation probably finished them off.

Evidence for North Atlantic current shut-down ~120 ka ago

Gulf stream map

Warming surface currents of the North Atlantic (credit: Wikipedia)

A stupendous amount of heat is shifted by ocean-surface currents, so they have a major influence over regional climates. But they are just part of ocean circulation systems, the other being the movement of water in the deep ocean basins. One driver of this world-encompassing system is water density; a function of its temperature and salinity. Cold saline water forming at the surface tends to sink, the volume that does being replaced by surface flow towards the site of sinking: effectively, cold downwellings ‘drag’ major surface currents along. This is especially striking in the North Atlantic where sinking cold brines are focused in narrow zones between Canada and Greenland and between Greenland and Iceland. From there the cold water flows southwards towards the South Atlantic at depths between 1 and 5 km. The northward compensating surface flow, largely from tropical seas of the Caribbean, is the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Current whose warming influence on climate of western and north-western Europe extends into the Arctic Ocean.

Circulation in the Atlantic Ocean. the orange and red water masses are those of the Gulf stream and North Atlantic Deep Water (credit: Science,  Figure 1 in Galaasen et al. 2014)

Circulation in the Atlantic Ocean. the orange and red water masses are those of the Gulf stream and North Atlantic Deep Water (credit: Science, Figure 1 in Galaasen et al. 2014)


Since the discovery of this top-to-bottom ‘conveyor system’ of ocean circulation oceanographers and climatologists have suspected that sudden climate shifts around the North Atlantic, such as the millennial Dansgaard-Oeschger events recorded in the Greenland ice cores, may have been forced by circulation changes. The return to almost full glacial conditions during the Younger Dryas, while global climate was warming towards the interglacial conditions of the Holocene and present day, has been attributed to huge volumes of meltwater from the North American ice sheet entering the North Atlantic. By reducing surface salinity and density the deluge slowed or shut down the ‘conveyor’ for over a thousand years, thereby drastically cooling regional climate. Such drastic and potentially devastating events for humans in the region seem not to have occurred during the 11.5 thousand years since the end of the Younger Dryas. Yet their suspected cause, increased freshwater influx into the North Atlantic, continues with melting of the Greenland ice cap and reduction of the permanent sea-ice cover of the Arctic Ocean, particularly accelerated by global warming.


The Holocene interglacial has not yet come to completion, so checking what could happen in the North Atlantic region depends on studying previous interglacials, especially the previous one – the Eemian – from 130 to 114 ka. Unfortunately the high-resolution climate records from Greenland ice cores do not extend that far back. On top of that, more lengthy sea-floor sediment cores rarely have the time resolution to show detailed records, unless, that is, sediment accumulated quickly on the deep sea bed. One place that seems to have happened is just south of Greenland. Cores from there have been re-examined with an eye to charting the change in deep water temperature from unusually thick sediment sequences spanning the Eemian interglacial (Galaasen, E.V. and 7 others 2014. Rapid reductions in North Atlantic Deep Water during the peak of the last interglacial period. Science, v. 343, 1129-1132).


The approach taken by the consortium of scientiosts from Norway, the US, France and Britain was to analyse the carbon-isotope composition of the shells of foraminifers that lived in the very cold water of the ocean floor during the Eemian. The ratio of 13C to 12C, expressed as δ13C, fluctuates according to the isotopic composition of the water in which the forams lived. What show up in the 130-114 ka period are several major but short-lived falls in δ13C from the general level of what would then have been North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW). It seems that five times during the Eemian the flow of NADW slowed and perhaps stopped for periods of the order of a few hundred years. If so, then the warming influence of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current would inevitably have waned through the same intervals. Confirmation of that comes from records of surface dwelling forams. This revelation should come as a warning: if purely natural shifts in currents and climate were able to perturb what had been assumed previously to be stable conditions during the last interglacial, what might anthropogenic warming do in the next century?



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Did ice-age climate changes across Europe happen at the same time?

Although the frigid conditions at the last glacial maximum, around 19 to 20 thousand years ago, gradually relinquished their grip through slow global warming, this amelioration came to sudden stop around 12 800 years before the present. Northern hemisphere ice-core and other climate records show that there was a return to glacial conditions over a period of a few decades at most, to launch what is known as the Younger Dryas stadial that lasted over a thousand years until about 11 500 years ago, with the onset of the warm, climatically more stable Holocene that launched the transformation of the human way of life. The start of the Younger Dryas had dramatic effects throughout the northern hemisphere, the cold conditions emerging suddenly from an immense oceanographic change; a weakening or the halt of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation in which cold, very salty surface waters at the fringe of the Arctic Ocean sink to drag warmer water to high latitudes. In short, the Gulf Stream slowed or stopped its warming influence at high northern latitudes.  Current thoughts centre on a freshening of surface sea water following the collapse of the North American ice sheet to gush meltwater and icebergs into the North Atlantic to buoy-up surface waters.

Iceage time 18kyr

Major climate shifts in Europe since 18 ka (credit: Wikipedia)

Most of the data about this climatic shock can only be dated accurately to within a few centuries: it is clear that the initial cooling was very rapid, on the scale of a few years, as was the warming that closed the Younger Dryas and marked the start of the Holocene, but the ‘when’ is known only to within a few hundred years. To resolve the start and stop ages needs records that include several indicators: clear signs of the beginning and end of the episode, an accurate means of dating them and confirmation from other sites, which presupposes a cast-iron means of correlating the records over large distances. The most reliable markers for correlation are volcanic ashes that can be dated radiometrically and which drift on the wind to be deposited over very large areas. If sedimentary sequences that accumulated continuously preserve such ashes, contain clear signs of climatic change and clearly record the passage of time in great detail, there is a chance of resolving climatic events very accurately; but they are no common.  A British-German team have located and analysed two such promising sites (Land, C.S. et al. 2013. Volcanic ash reveals time transgressive abrupt climate change during the Younger Dryas. Geology, v. 41, p. 1251-1254). One of them is from the bed of a lake that formed by a single volcanic eruption (Meerfelder Maar) in the Eifel region of western Germany. Quiet sediment accumulation has occurred there continuously to form very narrow, alternating dark and light layers, the variegation being due to sedimentation under ice in winter and open water in summer respectively. Twelve thousand of these annual varves provide a means of dating potentially with a precision of ± 1 year, but calibration to absolute time is necessary. The maar sediments contain three ash layers, two of which are from small local eruptions; the older having an age of 12 900 years before 2000 AD, the other being 11 000 years old, showing that the entire Younger Dryas is spanned by the Meerfelder Maar sediments. The third was dated by varve counting, showing the eruption had taken place 12 140 years ago. That age coincides closely with that of major eruption in Iceland.

Panorama Weinfelder Maar oder Totenmaar, Eifel

A typical volcanic maar in Eifel Region of Germany (credit: Wikipedia)

One prominent climatic feature of the Younger Dryas of Europe is a shift around halfway through: it started with the fiercest cold and then ameliorated. This change shows up in the Meerfelder Maar record as a reduction in mean varve thickness and an increase in the titanium content of the clays, the latter taking place in about a year (12 250 years ago) some 100 years before the Icelandic ash was deposited. The same kind of change occurs in records from lakes as far north as the Arctic Circle. One of the core records from Kråkenes in Northern Norway also contains the tell-tale Icelandic ash (as do ice cores from Greenland), but in its case it occurs 20 years before the abrupt climate shift. This clearly shows that major climate changes at the end of the last ice age occur at different times from place to place. The authors ascribe the 120 year difference between the two records to the times when prevailing, warm westerly winds began to affect central and northern Europe, linked to a gradual northward migration of the polar front. The data from both lakes also suggest that the Younger Dryas ended about 20 years earlier in Norway than in Germany, although Lane et al. do not comment..

Hitherto, correlation between climate records has been based on an assumption that major climate changes were at the same time, so that climate proxies such those discussed here have been ‘wiggle-matched’. Quite probably a lot of subtleties have thereby been missed.

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Yes, it was hot during the Permian

For those of us living in what was the heart of Pangaea – Europe and North America – more than 250 Ma ago this item’s title might seem like the ultimate truism. However, despite our vision of desert dune sands and evaporating inland seas, glaciation blanketed much of the Gondwana part of the supercontinent until the Middle Permian then lying athwart the South Pole. That would go a long way to accounting for extreme dryness at low to mid-latitudes, especially in the deep interior of Pangaea, but just how hot might tropical climates have been? The deglaciation of Gondwana was abrupt and has been touted as an analogue for a possible anthropogenic closure to the Cenozoic glacial epoch that began around 34 Ma in Antarctica and has periodically gripped land at northern latitudes as low as 40°N for the last 2.5 Ma. Since the present distribution of continents is totally different from the unique pole-to-pole shape of Pangaea, that is probably a view that is not widely held by palaeoclimatologists. Nonetheless, getting hard data on Permian conditions has an intrinsic interest for most geoscientists.

The bottom of Death Valley, USA

Playa lake in Death Valley, USA (credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best ways of measuring past temperatures, whether surficial or deep within the crust, almost directly is based on fluids trapped within minerals formed at the time of interest. In Permian strata there is no shortage of suitable material in the form of evaporite minerals, especially common salt or halite.  A distinctive chevron-like texture develops in halite that forms at the water-atmosphere interface in playa lakes that dry out every year. When thin sections of samples that contain fluid inclusions are slowly heated the air bubbles trapped in salt during crystallisation gradually homogenise with the other trapped fluids. Based on samples that have formed at the present day under a range of air temperatures, the temperature of homogenisation indicates the prevailing air temperature accurately. So well, in fact, that it is possible to assess diurnal temperature variations in suitable halite crystals.

Results have been obtained from Middle Permian halites in Kansas, USA (Zambito, J.J. & Benison, K.C. 2013. Extremely high temperatures and paleoclimate trends recorded in Permian ephemeral lake halite. Geology, v. 41, p. 587-590). In part of the section studied air temperatures reached 73°C, compared with a modern maximum of 57°C recorded in halites from the playas of Death Valley. Moreover, they exhibit changes of more than 30°C during daily cycles. But that kind of weather is common in other hot dry areas today, such as the Dasht-e Lut in eastern Iran. Also, the full data show crystallisation at lower temperatures (maxima of 30-40°C) in part of the sequence. What is noteworthy is that these data are the first quantitative indicators of weather before the last 2.5 Ma. Since evaporites extend back into the Precambrian, the method will undoubtedly extend accuracy and precision to paleoclimate  where only proxies and a modicum of guesswork were previously available.

Climate change and global volcanism

Geologists realized long ago that volcanic activity can have a profound effect on local and global climate. For instance, individual large explosive eruptions can punch large amounts of ash and sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere where they act to reflect solar radiation back to space, thereby cooling the planet. The 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines ejected 17 million tones of SO2; so much that the amount of sunlight reaching the Northern Hemisphere fell by around 10% and mean global temperature fell by almost 0.5 °C over the next 2 years. On the other hand, increased volcanic emissions of CO2 over geologically long periods of time are thought to explain some episodes of greenhouse conditions in the geological past.

Ash plume of Pinatubo during 1991 eruption.

Ash plume of Mount Pinatubo during its 1991 eruption. (credit: Wikipedia)

The converse effect of climate change on volcanism has, however, only been hinted at. One means of investigating a possible link is through the records of volcanic ash in sea-floor sediment cores in relation to cyclical climate change during the last million years. Data relating to the varying frequency volcanic activity in the circum Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ has been analysed by German and US geoscientists (Kutterolf, S. et al. 2013. A detection of Milankovich frequencies in global volcanic activity. Geology, v. 41, p. 227-230) to reveal a link with the 41 ka periodicity of astronomical climate forcing due to changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation. This matches well with the frequency spectrum displayed by changes in oxygen isotopes from marine cores that record the waxing and waning of continental ice sheets and consequent falls and rises in sea level. Yet there is no sign of links to the orbital eccentricity (~400 and ~100 ka) and axial precession (~22 ka) components of Milankovitch climatic forcing. An interesting detail is that the peak of volcanism lags that of tilt-modulated insolation by about 4 ka.

At first sight an odd coincidence, but both glaciation and changing sea levels involve shifting the way in which the lithosphere is loaded from above. With magnitudes of the orders of kilometres and hundreds of metres respectively glacial and eustatic changes would certainly affect the gravitational field. In turn, changes in the field and the load would result in stress changes below the surface that conceivably might encourage subvolcanic chambers to expel or accumulate magma. Kutterolf and colleagues model the stress from combined glacial and marine loading and unloading for a variety of volcanic provinces in the ‘Ring of Fire’ and are able to show nicely how the frequency of actual eruptions fits changing rates of deep-crustal stress from their model. Eruptions bunch together when stress changes rapidly, as in the onset of the last glacial maximum and deglaciations, and also during stadial-interstadial phases.

Whether or not there may be a link between climate change and plate tectonics, and therefore seismicity, is probably unlikely to be resolved simply because records do not exist for earthquakes before the historic period. As far as I can tell, establishing a link is possible only for volcanism close to coast lines, i.e. in island arcs and continental margins, and related to subduction processes, because the relative changes in stress during rapid marine transgressions and recessions would be large.. Deep within continents there may have been effects on volcanism related to local and regional ice-sheet loading. In the ocean basins, however, there remains a possibility of influences on the activity of ocean-island volcanoes, though whether or not that can be detected is unclear. Some, like Kilauea in Hawaii and La Palma in the Canary Islands, are prone to flank collapse and consequent tsunamis that could be influenced by much the same process. Another candidate for a climate-linked, potentially catastrophic process is that of destabilisation of marine sediments on the continental edge, as in the Storegga Slide off Norway whose last collapse and associated tsunami around 8 thousand years ago took place during the last major rise in sea level during deglaciation. The climatic stability of the Holocene probably damps down any rise in geo-risk with a link to rapid climate change, which anthropogenic changes are likely to be on a scale dwarfed by those during ice ages.

Tiny shrinking horses

English: This reproduction of a painting of an...

Reconstruction of Sifrhippus. Image via Wikipedia

The earliest known ancestors of modern horses occur in Palaeogene mammal-rich terrestrial sediments of the northwestern US, particularly those of the Wind and Bighorn Basins. The first with clear horse-like features was Sifrhippus (formely Eohippus, or Hyracotherium), but famously it had four hoofed toes and was about the size of a household cat. Subsequent development to a single load-bearing toe has long formed one of the classic cases for evolution. Sifrhippus lived at the end of the Palaeocene. From the large numbers of well-preserved skeletons, this was a herding animal. The large numbers of fossils have also made it a candidate for testing a hypothesis that individuals of a mammal and bird species become smaller as climate warms: Bergmann’s Rule. The background to this view is that in modern warm-blooded or endothermic animal species individuals tend to be smaller the closer they are to the Equator.

The end of the Palaeocene was marked by a now well-documented rise in global surface temperature that left a marked sign of increased 13C in sediments spanning the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary, which is widely believed to have resulted from massive exhalations of methane from the seafloor. Bergmann’s Rule arose because there appears to be a general decrease in size of most mammal fossils through the P-E Thermal Maximum.  Sifrhippus lived through the event and indeed did undergo 30% decrease in size at the start of the carbon-isotope shift marking the PETM. Moreover, after the isotopic excursion its fossils indicate a 70% increase in size (Secord, R. and 8 others 2012. Evolution of the earliest horses driven by climate change in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Science, v. 335, p. 959-962).

The study was of Sifrhippus and other mammals over a period representing several thousand generations. It broke new ground in two ways: it used the size of the horses’ teeth to estimate body mass, and teeth of a variety of mammals afforded systematic measurements of both carbon and oxygen isotopes. The carbon isotopic analyses pin-pointed the span of the PETM locally, while oxygen isotopes charted local changes in average temperature. The results show remarkable coherence with Bergmann’s Rule, but reveal other interesting aspects of the PETM in North America. Oxygen-isotope in the teeth of different mammal species give some idea of their diet and habitat. Sifrhippus shows the highest enrichment of 18O in its teeth, which suggests that it ate leaves from which water evaporation selectively removed the lighter 16O, i.e. in open, dry areas. Another ubiquitous fossil, Coryphodon, consistently has lower 18O than other mammals, signifying that it was water-loviong and ate aquatic plants, i.e. not subject to evaporation. Matching O-isotopes for the two species across the PETM shows a greater shift in 18O for Sifrhippus than for Coryphodon, which suggests that hidden in the O-isotope record of temperature is information about rainfall variations during the PETM. To further support Bergmann’s Rule, changes in the size of Sifrhippus, do not correlate with the aridity index. So it seem that heat alone was responsible for dwarfing – the other possibility considered by the researchers was that decreased availability or quality of diet could have been responsible.


Reconstruction of Coryphodon. Image via Wikipedia