Tag Archives: carbon dioxide

Ice Age gear shift

833-789 thousand years ago

Around today’s date, there was a shift in the nature of glacial cycles.

But let’s back up a bit. Earth’s climate took a turn toward cool in the transition from Eocene to Oligocene, 35 million years ago (although with some warming in the Miocene). It was probably back then that much of Antarctica started being covered by ice. The establishment of open water all the way around Antarctica may have helped isolate and freeze the continent. And declining carbon dioxide levels, partly a result of weathering of rocks in the Himalayas, probably also made a difference. But it was back at the beginning of the Pleistocene, now dated to 2.5 million years ago, that the current Ice Age truly began, with glaciers covering large parts of northern North America and northern Europe.

Current Ice Age? Glaciers covering large parts of northern North America and northern Europe? This isn’t what the climate has been like for the past 10,0000 years. Within the current long Ice Age there have been long glacial periods and shorter interglacials, and we’re currently in an interglacial. Our own activities may have done something to prolong the interglacial, and stave off the return of the ice; more on this another day.

Three astronomical cycles govern the rhythm of glacial and interglacial. There’s a 100,000 year cycle as Earth’s orbit changes from somewhat more elliptical to somewhat more circular. There’s a 40,000 year cycle as Earth’s axis shifts from slightly more tilted (24.5 degrees off vertical) to slightly less (22.1 degrees); it’s currently tilted at 23.5 degrees. And there’s a 21,000 year cycle generated as the Earth precesses – wobbles like a top. Right now the North Pole is pointed at Polaris, and the Sun very recently started rising in the constellation Aquarius at the Spring equinox: hence the Age of Aquarius.

(An even longer 400,000 year cycle might have been involved earlier in human evolution, in establishing intervals in which “amplifier lakes” flashed in and out of existence in the African rift valley. More here.)

Between 2.5 million and 800,000 years ago, the glacial/interglacial alternation was dominated by the 40,000 year cycle. But beginning about 800,000 years, there has been a gear shift: the 100,000 year cycle has been dominant and swings in climate have been more extreme. (In Africa however the 21,000 year cycle is more important for alternations between rainy and dry. Africa is in a dry state now.)

One of the startling findings to come out of the last few decades of work on ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica is that not only have there have been huge long-term changes in climate, but there have also been extreme short term shifts, probably connected with changes in ocean currents. There have been a number of occasions over the last hundreds of thousands of years during which average temperatures shifted by 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit (5-10 degrees Celsius) for a millennium, or even for a century or less! (During the last 10,000 years, however, the climate has been unusually stable.)

This is bound to have had strong effects on human beings. Two anthropologists, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, who work on mathematical models of cultural evolution, have a general theory of how this pattern of oscillations might have affected human evolution. They argue that human adaptation takes place on multiple time scales. On very long time scales, human beings adapt to changes in the environment genetically. On very short time scale, human beings adapt to change through individual learning. But when change happens on intermediate time scales, adaptation takes place through social learning. With changes on intermediate time scales, your ancestors may not have enough time to adapt genetically to the current climate, but things may be stable for long enough that your culture and the wisdom of the elders have a lot to teach you about how to cope. One of the really distinctive features of human beings, maybe even The Secret of Our Success is that we are, more than any other creature, a cultural animal, with high-fidelity cultural transmission; this trait may have been shaped by the nature of climate change especially over the last 800,000 years.

The worst of times

260 million years ago: the Capitanian mass extinction

A capsule summary of the evolution of life on Earth goes like this: There is steady progress in adaptation, driven especially by arms races, sometimes involving competitors, sometimes predators and prey. But this progress is interrupted from time to time by catastrophes – mass extinctions resulting from extrinsic causes, sometimes astronomical, but more often geological. (We’ll see much later in the year that a similar summary of human history goes like this: steady progress in the scale of cooperation driven by arms races, with occasional catastrophic interruptions, often associated with the spread of epidemic diseases.)

The geological causes of mass extinctions have been coming into focus lately. Many mass extinctions co-occur with the formation of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPS), regions where vast amounts of lava have flowed out of the earth, triggering a whole cascade of changes: the destruction of the ozone layer by halogen gases, global warming induced by CO2 and methane, and anoxic seas.

Large Igneous Provinces aren’t always associated with mass extinctions. What makes some episodes of massive lava flow particularly destructive is that they produce short circuits in the “planetary fuel cell.” The development of complex life has depended on the separation between an oxygen-rich, electron-hungry atmosphere and a reducing, electron-stuffed planetary interior. Some of the biggest setbacks to complex life have happened when  lava flows from deep in the Earth’s interior punch through carbon deposits on their way up, and bridge this chemical gap between surface and interior.

The mass extinction 260 million years ago, the Capitanian, is not one of the classic five greatest mass extinctions, and has been overshadowed by the mother of all mass extinctions, the end-Permian, which happened just 8 million years later. But it took a major toll on living things, from marine organisms to dinocephalians. (The dinocephalians – more closely related to mammals than to dinosaurs, ranging up to hippo sized, and including both herbivores and carnivores – went entirely extinct with the Capitanian. See picture.) The Capitanian extinctions coincide with, and were probably caused by, the formation of the Emeishan LIP, now in southwest China.

dinocephalians

A book published recently, The Worst of Times, pulls together the latest evidence that the Capitanian was the beginning of an 80 million year period in which mass extinctions were exceptionally common. Apparently the formation of the supercontinent of Pangaea and the Panthalassic superocean made living things particularly vulnerable to volcanically induced extinctions. Once Pangaea breaks up, mass extinctions are less frequent, and generally have different causes.  The death of the dinosaurs had an extra-terrestrial cause, and the mass extinction we’re in the middle of results from the activities of one very unusual species.

pangaea

Coals to Newcastle

320-304 million years ago

It seems like Gaia really went on a bender in the late Carboniferous, getting drunk on oxygen. By some estimates, the atmosphere was over 30% oxygen back then, compared to 21% today. Living things took advantage of the opportunity. Insects apparently face an upper limit in size because they rely on diffusion through tracheas instead of forced respiration through lungs to get oxygen into their bodies. With more oxygen in the air, this limit was raised. The Carboniferous saw dragonflies with a wingspan up to 70 centimeters, and body lengths up to 30 centimeters, comparable to a seagull.

dragonfly

This happened because plants were turning carbon dioxide into organic matter and free oxygen, and the organic matter was accumulating. With carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere, the late Carboniferous and subsequent early Permian saw a reduced greenhouse effect, and global cooling. This was another Ice Age, with ice caps around the southern pole.

A lot of organic carbon ended up being buried. Much of the world’s coal, especially high quality anthracite, has its origin in Carboniferous tropical forests. Western Europe and eastern North America lay in the tropics at the time, and got a particularly generous allotment of coal. Three hundred million years later this bounty would fuel the early Industrial Revolution. (Thanks partly to some of my Welsh ancestors, who helped dig it up back in the day.)

coal age

Snow time

744-704 million years ago

I grew up in Minnesota, and traveled back there on family business a few weeks back. Sliding around snowy streets in a rent-a-truck was no fun. But planet Earth has seen a lot worse.

For the past few weeks, tweeting has been sparse, because for a billion years Earth was fairly stable. Any biological evolution towards greater complexity that was going on left little fossil evidence.

Then things changed dramatically. Before 720 million years ago, we find thick limestone deposits left by decaying algae. These were sequestering carbon, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and cooling the Earth. At some point a positive feedback cycle kicked in, as polar seas froze and reflected more sunlight, cooling the planet further. The result was a succession of extreme Ice Ages. The Ice Age of the last two million years, which merely covered high latitudes with glaciers, off and on, were nothing compared to the Snowball Earth of the Cryogenian: at a minimum, polar seas were frozen, and tropical seas were slushy with icebergs. It’s possible that things were even more extreme: the entire sea may have been covered by a thick layer of ice, with a few photosynthetic algae surviving in the ice, and other organisms hanging on around deep sea hot water vents. For a hundred million years, climate oscillated abruptly between two steady states, frozen and warm.

It’s only in the last two decades we’ve begun to figure out this amazing story. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that Earth over the long run is far from a stable system. We will see again and again that the history of life, like human history, has been punctuated by catastrophes.

 

dropstone

Compost

2,16-2.04 billion years ago

I’m writing this in the café down the street from my house, where I just picked up a five gallon bucket of coffee grounds. These will go into my compost heap, where they’ll supply the nitrogen that the leaf mulch in the heap is short of. I’ve developed some kind of pre-capitalist exchange relation with the cafe; come summer I’ll bring them some flowers from my garden.

It took me years to get the formula right. For a long time, I just let chopped up leaves sit in a pile in a corner of the yard. Nothing much happened. Eventually I wised up and did some research: proper composting requires the right balance of carbon and nitrogen. The nitrogen and some of the carbon go into building organic molecules. Most of the carbon, though, combines with oxygen to make carbon dioxide, releasing energy in the process for the bacteria that make the compost. The amount of energy is appreciable: on a mild winter day, with air temperature just above freezing, the inside of my compost heap was the temperature of a lukewarm bath.

But composting goes back way longer than my compost heap, and way longer than Homo sapiens has been around. In fact, composting may have gotten its start more than 2 billion years ago. Here’s the story:

Back when I was in college, a guy I knew was taking a course in organic chemistry. He despaired of mastering the material in time for the next exam. Another student who’d already taken the course advised him, “Just remember, electrons go where they ain’t. Everything else is details” This is a pretty good starting point for thinking about how life and Earth have coevolved. Carbon, sitting in the middle of the periodic table, with four electrons to share, and four empty slots available for other atoms’ electrons, is exceptionally versatile. It can form super-oxidized carbon dioxide, CO2, where carbon’s extra electrons fill in oxygen’s empty slots. Or it can form super-reduced methane, CH4, where carbon’s empty slots are filled by hydrogen’s extra electrons. Or it can form carbohydrates, basic formula CH2O, neither super-oxidized nor super-reduced, where the oxygen atom gives the carbon atom some extra empty slots and the hydrogen atoms give the carbon atom some extra electrons.

Chemically, life is pretty much about reducing and oxidizing carbon compounds. Nowadays, this means, on the one hand, photosynthesis – using the sun’s energy to go from carbon dioxide to carbohydrates – and, on the other hand, aerobic respiration – running the same reaction in reverse to release energy. But this modern arrangement took eons to develop. It depended on geochemistry, specifically on the evolution* of what has been called a planetary fuel cell, with an oxidizing atmosphere and ocean physically separated from buried reduced minerals. Given a breach in this separation, the oxygen and the reduced minerals will react and release energy. In future posts we’ll see how such short-circuits in the planetary fuel cell are probably the cause of most major mass extinctions.

The development of the planetary fuel cell was erratic. One puzzling episode is the Logamundi Event, where oxygen levels went up 2.2 billion years ago and then back down 2.08 billion years ago. One theory is that the Event began with photosynthetic cyanobacteria pumping oxygen into the atmosphere. When these bacteria died, they just piled up, leaving a growing accumulation of organic matter in the world’s oceans. According to this theory, the end of the Event happened when other bacteria discovered they could oxidize the accumulated organic matter, and used up a good part of the atmosphere’s oxygen. In other words, the end of the Logamundi Event marks the invention of composting.

The return to higher oxygen levels in the atmosphere would take some time, and deposition of reduced sediments.

*Are we allowed to call this “evolution”? Maybe.

Matchmaking life

2.86-2.81 billion years ago

You can find romance if you want in the periodic table, with elements on the right side of the table, just an electron or two short of a full shell, cruising for partners over on the left side, with an electron or two to share. The folk-singing sisters Anne and Kate Macgarrigle made a song out of this, NaCl, about a love affair between a chlorine atom and a sodium atom. “Think of all the love you eat when you salt your meat.”

And living things are matchmakers, middlemen making a living by arranging liaisons between the two sides of the periodic table, harvesting the energy released by moving electrons around. The basic mechanism is shown below.

protonics

Take a reducing compound willing to give up an electron and an oxidant looking for an electron. Electrons go where they ain’t: starting on the left, electrons (e-) from the first compound pass through a series of protein complexes (grayish circles) embedded in a membrane (horizontal lines). The passage of electrons from one complex to the next in the membrane powers the movement of protons (H+) from one side of the membrane to the other. For each pair of electrons passing down the chain, ten protons are moved across the membrane. Finally the electrons are united with the oxidant (shown as O2 generating H2O). Electrons keep being pulled through the chain as long as reducing and oxidizing agents are available.

This is the first part the job. The result is a lot of extra protons on one side of the membrane and a large difference in electrical potential between the two sides. For the second part, another protein complex (ATP synthase) uses this potential difference to turn ADP (adenosine diphosphate) into ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is the fundamental energy carrier of life, powering the cell’s chemical reactions when it turns back into ADP.

This is the basic mechanism of respiration (and most of photosynthesis), just as DNA replication is the basic mechanism of heredity. Understanding the origin of this mechanism is a major challenge in understanding the origin of life. Nick Lane walks through some of the theories.

At this stage in Earth’s history, living things are tiny and not very interesting structurally. But they are hugely diverse biochemically, making use of a great array of different reducing and oxidizing compounds. For example, methanogens use hydrogen seeping from undersea vents to reduce carbon dioxide, producing methane. This may have been of some importance to the planet as a whole. Methane is a greenhouse gas, trapping infrared radiation even more effectively than carbon dioxide. The Sun three billion years ago was fainter than it is today; it may be methanogens that kept a young Earth from freezing over.

Ice Age gear shift

833-789 thousand years ago

Around today’s date, there was a shift in the nature of glacial cycles.

But let’s back up a bit. Earth’s climate took a turn toward cool in the transition from Eocene to Oligocene, 35 million years ago (although with some warming in the Miocene). It was probably back then that much of Antarctica started being covered by ice. The establishment of open water all the way around Antarctica may have helped isolate and freeze the continent. And declining carbon dioxide levels, partly a result of weathering of rocks in the Himalayas, probably also made a difference. But it was back at the beginning of the Pleistocene, now dated to 2.5 million years ago, that the current Ice Age truly began, with glaciers covering large parts of northern North America and northern Europe.

Current Ice Age? Glaciers covering large parts of northern North America and northern Europe? This isn’t what the climate has been like for the past 10,0000 years. Within the current long Ice Age there have been long glacial periods and shorter interglacials, and we’re currently in an interglacial. Our own activities may have done something to prolong the interglacial, and stave off the return of the ice; more on this another day.

Three astronomical cycles govern the rhythm of glacial and interglacial. There’s a 100,000 year cycle as Earth’s orbit changes from somewhat more elliptical to somewhat more circular. There’s a 40,000 year cycle as Earth’s axis shifts from slightly more tilted (24.5 degrees off vertical) to slightly less (22.1 degrees); it’s currently tilted at 23.5 degrees. And there’s a 21,000 year cycle generated as the Earth precesses – wobbles like a top. Right now the North Pole is pointed at Polaris, and the Sun very recently started rising in the constellation Aquarius at the Spring equinox: hence the Age of Aquarius.

Between 2.5 million and 800,000 years ago, the glacial/interglacial alternation was dominated by the 40,000 year cycle. But beginning about 800,000 years, there has been a gear shift: the 100,000 year cycle has been dominant and swings in climate have been more extreme. (In Africa however the 21,000 year cycle is more important for alternations between rainy and dry. Africa is in a dry state now.)

One of the startling findings to come out of the last few decades of work on ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica is that not only have there have been huge long-term changes in climate, but there have also been extreme short term shifts, probably connected with changes in ocean currents. There have been a number of occasions over the last hundreds of thousands of years during which average temperatures shifted by 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit (5-10 degrees Celsius) for a millennium, or even for a century or less! (During the last 10,000 years, however, the climate has been unusually stable.)

This is bound to have had strong effects on human beings. Two anthropologists, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, who work on mathematical models of cultural evolution, have a general theory of how this pattern of oscillations might have affected human evolution. They argue that human adaptation takes place on multiple time scales. On very long time scales, human beings adapt to changes in the environment genetically. On very short time scale, human beings adapt to change through individual learning. But when change happens on intermediate time scales, adaptation takes place through social learning. With changes on intermediate time scales, your ancestors may not have enough time to adapt genetically to the current climate, but things may be stable for long enough that your culture and the wisdom of the elders have a lot to teach you about how to cope. So one of the really distinctive features of human beings – we are, more than any other creature, a cultural animal – may have been shaped by the nature of climate change especially over the last 800,000 years.