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’.

Tectonics on Venus

The surface of Venus is not easily observed because of the almost opaque nature of its atmosphere. The planet is veiled by a mixture of CO2 (96.5%) and nitrogen (3.5%), with a little sulfur dioxide and noble gases. The atmosphere’s mass is almost 100 times that of the Earth’s, and has a density about 6.5% that of liquid water at the surface. The opacity stems from a turbulent upper layer of mainly sulfuric acid. Venus is the victim of runaway greenhouse conditions. Despite that, radar can penetrate the atmosphere to reveal details of its surface morphology – roughness and elevation – at a spatial resolution of 150 m. Although coarser than that available from radar remote sensing of the Earth from orbit, the Magellan data are still geologically revealing.

Earlier interpretation of Venus radar images revealed the surface to be far simpler than that of the Earth, Mars and all other rocky bodies in the Solar System. Yet it has more volcanoes than does the Earth or Mars. However, despite being subject to very little erosion – Venus is a dry world – only around 1000 impact craters have been found: far short of the number seen on Mars or the Moon. This deficiency of evidence for bombardment suggests that Venus was ‘repaved’ by vast volcanic outpourings in the geologically recent past, estimated to have occurred 300 to 600 Ma ago. This early work concluded that plate tectonics was absent; indeed that for half a billion years the lithosphere on Venus had been barely deformed. It has been suggested that Venus has been involved in megacycles of sudden, planet-wide magmatic activity separated by long periods of quiescence. This could be attributed to the lack of plate tectonics, which is the principal means that Earth continuously rids itself of heat produced at depth by decay of radioactive isotopes in the mantle. Venus has been suggested to build up internal temperatures until they reach a threshold that launches widespread partial melting of its mantle. Planet-wide eruption of magma then reduces internal temperatures.

Polygonal blocks or ‘campuses’ on the lowland surface of Venus. Note the zones of ridges that roughly parallel ‘campus’ margins. Credit: Paul K. Byrne, North Carolina State University and Sean C. Solomon, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

It comes as a surprise that 26 years after Magellan plunged into the Venusian atmosphere new interpretation of its radar images suggests a completely different scenario (it may be that academic attention generally switched to research on Mars because of all the missions to the ‘Red Planet’ since Magellan disappeared). It is based on features of the surface of Venus so large that their having been missed until now may be a planetary-scale example of ‘not seeing the woods for the trees’! Geoscientists from the US, Turkey, the UK and Greece have mapped out features ranging from 100 to 1000 km across that cover the lowland parts of Venus (Byrne, P.K. et al. 2021. A globally fragmented and mobile lithosphere on Venus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, v. 118, article e2025919118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2025919118). They resemble 1950s ‘crazy paving’ or floes in Arctic pack ice, but on a much larger scale. Extending the ice floe analogy, the polygonal blocks are separated by what resemble pressure ridges that roughly parallel the block margins. Paul Byrne of North Carolina State University, USA, and co-workers also found evidence that the large blocks of lithosphere had rotated and moved laterally relative to one another: they had ‘jostled’. Moreover, some of the movement has disturbed the youngest materials on the surface.

To distinguish what seem to be characteristic of Venus’s tectonics from Earthly tectonic plates, the team hit on the name ‘campus’, meaning ‘field’ in Latin. Rather than having remained a single spherical skin of lithosphere, the surface of at least part of Venus has broken into a series of ‘campuses’. It does display tectonics, but not as we know it on planet Earth. This could be ascribed to an outcome of stress transfer from deep convective motion in the Venerean mantle. Being in the virtually non-magmatic phase of Venus’s thermal cycling, there is neither formation of new lithosphere nor subduction of old, cold plates that characterise terrestrial plate tectonics. ‘Campus’ tectonics seems likely to be another form of planetary energy and matter redistribution, and Byrne et al. have likened it to how the Earth may have functioned during the ‘missing’ 600 Ma of the Hadean Eon on Earth. But perhaps not …

The runaway greenhouse has resulted in surface temperatures on Venus being 450°C higher than on Earth: enough to melt lead. It is not just solar heat that is trapped by the atmosphere, but that from the Venerean interior. This must result in a very different geotherm (the way temperature varies with depth in a planet) from that characterising the Earth. The temperature of the beginning of mantle melting – about 1200°C – must be much shallower on Venus. On Earth that is at depths between 50 and 100 km below active plate margins and within-plate hotspots, and is not reached at all for most of the Earth that lies beneath the tectonic plates. If the mantle of Venus contained a similar complement of heat-producing isotopes to that of Earth wouldn’t we expect continual volcanism on Venus rather than the odd dribble that has been observed by Magellan? Or does the jostling of ‘campuses’ absorb the thermal energy and help direct it slowly to space by radiation through the dense, greenhouse atmosphere. Here’s another poser: If the Earth and Venus are geochemically similar and Hadean Earth went through such a phase of ‘campus tectonics’ – perhaps our world had a CO2-rich atmosphere too – what changed to allow plate tectonics here to replace that system of thermal balance? And, why hasn’t that happened on Venus? Perhaps some light will be thrown on these enigmas once a series of new missions to Venus are launched between now and the 2030s, by NASA and the European Space Agency.

What controls the height of mountains?

‘Everybody knows’ that mountains grow: the question is, ‘How?’ There is a tale that farmers once believed that they grew from pebbles: ‘every year I try to rid my field of stones, but more are back the following year, so they must grow’… Geoscientists know better – or so they think[!] – and for 130 years have referred to ‘orogeny’, a classically-inspired term (from the Ancient Greek óros and geneia – high-ground creation’) adopted by the US geologist Grove Gilbert. It incorporates the concept of crustal thickening that results from lateral forces and horizontal compression. Another term, now rarely used, is ‘epeirogeny’ (coined too by G.K. Gilbert), wherein the continental surface rises or falls in response to underlying gravitational forces. That could include: changing mantle density over a hot, rising plume; detachment or delamination into the mantle of dense lower lithosphere; loading or unloading by ice during glacial cycles. Epeirogeny is bound up with isostasy, the maintenance of gravitational balance of mass in the outermost Earth.

A small part of the High Himalaya (credit: Access-Himalaya)

In 1990, Peter Molnar and Philip England pointed out that the incision of deep valleys into mountain ranges results in stupendous and rapid removal of mass from orogenic belts, which adds a major isostatic force to mountain building (Molnar, P. & England, P. 1990. Late Cenozoic uplift of mountain ranges and global climate change: chicken or egg? Nature, v. 346, p. 29–34; DOI: 10.1038/346029a0). In their model, the remaining peaks are driven higher by isostasy. They, and others, coupled climate change with compressional tectonics in a positive feedback that drives peaks to elevations that they would otherwise never achieve. Molnar and England’s review saw complex interplays contributing to mountain building, accompanying chemical weathering even changing global climate by sequestering atmospheric CO2 into the minerals that it produces. As well as the height of peaks in active zones of crustal shortening and thickening, such as the Himalaya, Molnar and England’s theory explained the aberrant high peaks at the edge of high plateaus that are passively subject to erosion. Examples of the latter are the isolated peaks beyond the eastern edge of the Ethiopian Plateau that locally have the greatest elevation than the flood basalts that form the plateau: unloading around these peaks has caused them to rise isostatically.

Thirty years on, this paradigm is being questioned, at least as regards active orogens (Dielforder, A. et al. 2020. Megathrust shear force controls mountain height at convergent plate margins. Nature, v. 582, p. 225–229; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2340-7). Armin Dielforder and colleagues at the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam and The University of Münster consider that overall mountain height is sustained by interactions between three forces. 1. They are prevented from falling apart under their own weight or being pushed up further against gravity by lateral tectonic force. 2. Climate controlled erosion limits mountain height by removing material from the highest elevations. 3. Isostasy keeps the mountains ‘afloat’ above the asthenosphere. The authors have attempted to assess and balance all three major forces that determine the overall elevation of mountain belts.

At a convergent plate margin where one plate is shoved beneath another, the megathrust above the subduction zone behaves in a brittle fashion, with associated friction, towards the surface. At depth this transitions to a zone of ductile deformation dominated by viscosity. A major assumption in this work is that stress in the crust below a mountain belt is neutral; i.e. horizontal, tectonic compression is equal to the weight of the mountains themselves and thus to their height. So, the greater the tectonic compressive force the higher the mountain range that it can support. The test is to compare the actual elevation with that predicted from plate-tectonic considerations. For 10 active orogenic belts there is a remarkable correspondence between the model and actuality. the authors conclude that variation over time of mountain height reflects log-term variations in the force balance, in which they find little sign of a climatic/erosional control. But that doesn’t resolve the issue satisfactorily, at least for me.

The study focuses on the mean elevation, and this leaves out the largest mountains; for instance, their maximum mean elevation for the Himalaya is about 5.46 km (in fact for a narrow  NE-SW swath that may not be representative of the whole range). Yet the Himalaya contains 10 of the world’s highest mountains, all over 8 km high and 50 peaks that top 7 km, adjacent to the Tibetan Plateau. The mean elevation of the whole Himalayan range is 6.1 km. Consequently, it seems to me, the range’s maximum mean elevation must be somewhat higher than that reported by Dielforder et al.  The difference suggests that non-tectonic forces do contribute significantly to Himalayan terrain

See also:  Wang, K. 2020. Mountain height may be controlled by tectonic force, rather than erosion. Nature, v. 582, p. 189-190; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01601-4