Climate and tectonics since 250 Ma

A central feature of the Earth’s climate system is the way that carbon bound in two gases – carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – controls the amount of incoming solar energy that is retained by the atmosphere. Indeed, without one or the other our home world would have been locked in frigidity since shortly after its formation: a sterile, ice-covered planet. The ‘greenhouse effect’ has been ever-present because the material from which the Earth accreted contained carbon as well as every other chemical element from hydrogen to uranium. Naturally reactive, it readily combines with hydrogen and oxygen to form methane and carbon dioxide, which would have escaped the inner Earth as gases to enter the earliest atmosphere as a ‘comfort blanket’, along with water vapour, another greenhouse gas.  Their combined effects have remained crudely balanced so that neither inescapable frigidity nor surface temperatures high enough to boil-off the oceans have ever occurred in the last 4.5 billion years. Earth has remained like the wee bear’s porridge in the Goldilocks story! Even so, global climate has fluctuated again and again from that akin to a steamy greenhouse, through long periods of moderation to extensive glacial conditions, including three that extended from pole-to-pole – ‘Snowball’ Earths –  during in the Precambrian. During the Phanerozoic the Earth has entered three long periods of generally low global temperatures, in the Ordovician, the Carboniferous and during the last 2.5 Ma  that allowed polar ice caps and sea-ice to extend a third of the way to the Equator. These were forced back and forth repeatedly by cyclical influences apparently triggered by astronomically controlled changes to Earth’s orbital and rotational parameters – the Milankovich Effect. Anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases in vast and increasing amounts now threaten to disrupt natural climate variation, effectively overthrowing the gravitational influences of distant giant planets that have controlled climate changes that shaped our own evolution since the genus Homo first emerged.

Bubbles of air trapped in cores through the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland record decreased volumes of land ice as CO2 content increased and the opposite during glacial episodes. Somehow in step with the astronomical forcing the Earth released greenhouse gas to warm the climate and drew it down to bring on cooling. Since all life forms are built from carbon-rich compounds and some extract it from the environment to build carbonate hard parts, climate and life on land and in the oceans are interlinked. In fact life and death are involved, because once dead organisms and their hard parts are buried before being oxidised in sediments on land, as in peat and ultimately coal, and on the ocean floors as limestones or carbonaceous mudstones, atmospheric carbon is sequestered. Exposed to acid water containing dissolved CO2 from the atmosphere or to oxygen, respectively, the two forms of carbon in solid form are released as greenhouse gas once more. Both take place when sedimentary deposits are exhumed as a result of erosion and tectonics. Another factor is the abundance of available nutrients, themselves released and distributed by erosion and agents of transportation. At present surface waters of the most distant parts of the oceans contains plenty of such nutrients, except for a vital one, dissolved iron. So they are wet ‘deserts’. It seems that during the much dustier times of glacial episodes iron in fine form reached far out into the world’s oceans so that phytoplankton at the base of the food chain ‘bloomed ‘and so did planktonic animals. Dead organisms ‘rained’ to the ocean floor so drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere and decreasing the greenhouse effect. The surface parts of the carbon and rock cycles are extremely complex and climatologists have yet to come to grips with modelling its future climates convincingly. Yet the carbon cycle and much deeper parts of the rock cycle are interwoven too.

Carbon in sedimentary rock can be heated by burial, and some can be subducted to great depths at destructive plate margins together. The same applies to in ocean-floor basalts that have been permeated by circulating sea water through hydrothermal circulation to form carbonates in the altered volcanic rock. In both cases carbon stored for hundreds of million years can be released by metamorphism in orogenic belts at zones of continental collision and deep below island arcs. Carbon from mantle depths that has never ‘seen the light of day’ is also added to the atmosphere when magmas form below oceanic constructive margins, hot spots and subduction zones, and where magmas flood the continental surface. Consequently, plate tectonics and deep mantle convection have surely played a long-term role in the evolution of our planet’s climate system. Geoscientists based in Australia and the UK have used geochemical data to reconstruct the stores of carbon in oceanic plates and thermodynamic modelling to track what may have happened to it and the climate through the last 250 Ma (Müller, R.D. et al. 2022. Evolution of Earth’s tectonic carbon conveyor belt. Nature, v. 605, p. 629-639; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04420-x). Their review is an important step in understanding what underpins climate on a geological time scale, onto which much shorter-term surface influences are superimposed.

The amount of carbon being outgassed as CO2 each year along plate boundaries in the early Jurassic (185 Ma) shown in dark purple (low) to yellow (high). Also shown in shades of blue is the accumulation of carbon stored in each square metre of the ocean plates. Plate motions are shown as grey arrows (credit: Müller, R.D. et al. Clip from video in Supplementary Information)

At mid-ocean ridges basaltic magma wells up from mantle depths and loses much of its content of dissolved CO2. The annual outgassing at ridges, which depends on the global rate of plate formation, has varied from 13 to 30 million tonnes of carbon  (MtC yr-1) since the start of the Mesozoic Era 250 Ma ago. Similarly, there is greenhouse-gas escape from volcanic arcs above subduction zones, estimated to have ranged from 0 to 18 MtC yr-1. As an oceanic plate moves away from its source various processes sequester CO2 into the oceanic crust and upper mantle through accumulation of deep-sea sediments and hydrothermal alteration of basaltic crust and peridotite mantle (ranging from 30 to 311 MtC yr-1). Of this influx of carbon into oceanic plates between 36 to 103 MtC yr-1 has gone down subduction zones in descending slabs. Between 0 to 49 MtC yr-1 of that has been outgassed by arc volcanic activity or absorbed into the overriding plate. The rest continues down into the deep mantle, perhaps to form diamonds. Overall, when the rate at which oceanic plates grow is rapid and plate motion speeds up, outgassing should be high. When plate growth slows, so does the rate of CO2 release. Variations in plate growth can be estimated from the magnetic reversal stripes above the ocean floors.  The authors have released an animation of the break-up of Pangaea (well worth watching at full screen – you can skip the ad at the start), with the rate of carbon emission at ridges and volcanic arcs being colour-coded. Also shown is the storage of carbon within oceanic plats plates as time passes.

Length of mid-ocean ridges (orange) and subduction zones (blue) through the last 250 Ma (top). The areas of oceanic crust produced at ridges and consumed by subduction (bottom) (credit: Müller, R.D. et al., Figs 1a, 1c)

Before Pangaea began to break up at the end of the Triassic (200 Ma) the total length of mid-ocean ridges was at a minimum of about 40 thousand km. Through the Jurassic it never exceeded 50,000 km, but rose to a maximum of 80,000 km during the Cretaceous then declined slowly to the current length of 60,000 km. Throughout the last 250 Ma the length of subduction zones stayed roughly the same at about 65 thousand km – not always in the same places – although the overall rate of subduction changed in line with the rate of oceanic plate growth  (the volume that is added must be balanced roughly by the amount that returns to the mantle).  Between the end of the Jurassic and the mid-Cretaceous crustal production and destruction doubled, shown by the bottom plot in the figure above. The very fast  movement of plates and an increase in the global length of ridges during Jurassic to mid-Cretaceous times led to a dramatic increase in CO2 outgassing from ridges so that its content in the atmosphere rose as high as 1200 ppm – more than four times that before the Industrial Revolution. That level resulted in global ‘hothouse’ conditions during the Cretaceous. Another factor behind the Cretaceous climate was a decrease in the global complement of mountains. That led to decreases in erosion and the weathering of silicates by acid rain, thus reducing natural sequestration of carbon.

During the Cenozoic (after 65 Ma) declining ridge outgassing was actually outpaced by that associated with subduction, according to the modelling. That is strange, for by around 35 Ma glaciation had begun  on Antarctica as the Earth was cooling, which implies a major, unexpected sink for excess CO2. The most likely way this might have arisen is through increased erosion and silicate weathering on the exposed continents that consumed CO2 faster than tectonics was releasing the gas. The length of continental arcs shows no sign of a major increase during the Cenozoic, which might have accelerated that kind of sequestration, but a variety of proxies for signs of weathering definitely suggests that there was an upsurge. Also there was increased storage of carbon on the deep ocean floor, shown by the video. Increased calcium released by weathering to enter ocean water in solution would allow more planktonic organisms to secrete calcite (CaCO3) skeletons that would then fall to the ocean floor when they died.

There may be more to be discovered in this hugely complex interplay between tectonics and climate. For instance, when the bottom waters of the oceans are oxygenated by deep currents of cold dense seawater sinking from polar regions, carbon in tissues of sunken dead organism is oxidised to release CO2. If bottom waters are anoxic, this organic carbon is preserved in sediments. The authors mention this as something to be considered in their future work on  the ‘tectonic carbon conveyor belt’.