The November 2009 issue of EPN (Boron isotopes and climate change) described how the 11B/10B ratios of planktonic forams correlate with the pH of seawater, and thus with the amount of dissolved CO2 that increases acidity. In fact the more easily analysed ratio between the boron and calcium contents of forams does the same, and for the last 800 ka correlates with the measured CO2 content of bubbles in Antarctic ice, which itself correlates very well with temperatures and sea levels (Tripati, A.K. et al. 2009. Coupling of CO2 and ice sheet stability over major climate transitions of the last 20 million years. Science, v. 326, p. 1394-1397). Extending this approach back to 20 Ma shows that in the Middle Miocene (~10 Ma) when glacial cover began to expand atmospheric CO2 fell from levels similar to those of the present day (387 ppm) to approximately those of the pre-industrial Holocene (~250 ppm). In the earlier Miocene from 14 to 20 Ma global mean surface temperatures were 3-6º C higher and sea level stood 40 m higher than at present. As well as this grim reminder of a possible future, the data support the general notion of a coupling between atmospheric CO2 and global climate.
Was the Archaean blazing hot or balmy?
Silica-rich sediments, notably cherts have been used to estimate ocean temperatures in the far off Archaean Eon. This is possible because SiO2 and water exchange oxygen atoms as the silica mud is forming, and in doing so its two main stable isotopes (18O and 16O) are preferentially treated depending on water temperature. The cooler it is the more 18O ends up in silica. Early Archaean cherts commonly show lower δ18O values than silica-rich ocean sediments forming now, so much lower that the temperature of Palaeoarchaean seas has been judged to have been between 55 to 85º C. Discomfortingly hot for bathers, and not very plausible considering that without a CO2-rich atmosphere Archaean oceans would have been frozen solid because the Sun emitted much less energy than it does now. However, such estimates have to assume that the oxygen isotopic composition of seawater at 3.5 Ga was the same as now, when in fact it is known that environmental δ18O probably changes over long time periods. A way of avoiding an untestable assumption is to measure the isotopic composition of hydrogen (1H and 2H or D) in chert as well as that of oxygen. The cooler water is, the lower δD values are in silica that is precipitated from it. Ordinary quartz contains no hydrogen except in unstable fluid inclusions, but the way chert forms as colloidal precipitates of opal-like material locks hydrogen in the form of OH– ions into its silica (Hren, M.T. et al. 2009. Oxygen and hydrogen isotope evidence for a temperate climate 3.42 billion years ago. Nature, v. 462, p. 205-208). Combining the two measures for 3.42 Ga cherts from the famous Barberton Mountain Land Archaean complex results in a sea-surface temperature estimate of no more than 40º C.