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Rewinding Earth’s Climate Clock: Exploring 66 Million Years of Atmospheric CO2 levels

BlogRewinding Earth’s Climate Clock: Exploring 66 Million Years of Atmospheric CO2 levels

Unprecedented CO2 Levels

Current atmospheric CO2 levels, at 419 parts per million (ppm), haven’t been witnessed in 14 million years due to human-driven fossil fuel emissions.

Geological Exploration

An international team of scientists, including key contributions from University of Utah geologists, delves into Earth’s history through markers in the geologic record to understand the context of today’s CO2 concentrations.

The Study

Cenozoic CO2 Proxy Integration Project (CenCO2PIP)

  • A community effort involving 90 scientists from 16 countries.
  • Aims to evaluate, categorize, and integrate various proxies to create a comprehensive record of atmospheric CO2 levels.
  • The study focuses on the Cenozoic era, spanning 66 million years.

Challenges with Proxies

  • Glacial air bubbles provide direct evidence for the past 800,000 years, but proxies are required for deeper geological insights.
  • Proxies include isotopes in minerals, fossilized leaf morphology, and other geological evidence reflecting atmospheric chemistry.

Proxy Integration

  • Combining multiple proxies from different sediment archives on land and in the ocean for a refined interpretation.
  • Statistical refinement enhances the reliability of the record.

CO2 Levels Over Time

Industrial Revolution Impact

Future Projections

  • Concentrations expected to rise to 600 to 1,000 ppm by 2100.
  • Uncertainty remains regarding the specific climate impacts of these future levels.

Unprecedented Spike

Historical Context

  • While Earth experienced higher CO2 levels in the past during warmer periods, the current spike to 419 ppm is steep and potentially hazardous.
  • Unprecedented in recent geologic history, marking significant alterations within a few generations.

Climate Disruptions

  • Human-induced CO2 increase contributes to disruptive climate events: storms, droughts, heatwaves, and ocean acidification.

Implications for Understanding Earth’s History

Geological Significance

  • Changes in atmospheric CO2 and climate influenced mass extinctions and evolutionary innovations.
  • During the Cenozoic, CO2 declines and climate cooling impacted plant physiology, species competition, and mammalian evolution.

Importance of Understanding Past Trends

  • A refined understanding of past CO2 trends is crucial for deciphering Earth’s history, understanding modern species and ecosystems, and predicting future climate scenarios.

Altered Atmosphere

Human activities have significantly altered the Earth’s atmosphere, prompting urgent concerns about global climate disruptions.

Call for Action

A reliable map of past CO2 levels becomes imperative for predicting and mitigating the potential impacts of future climate changes.


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