WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The Earth may be able to recover from rising carbon dioxide emissions faster than previously thought, according to evidence from a prehistoric event analyzed by a Purdue University-led team.
When faced with high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and rising temperatures 56 million years ago, the Earth increased its ability to pull carbon from the air. This led to a recovery that was quicker than anticipated by many models of the carbon cycle - though still on the order of tens of thousands of years, said Gabriel Bowen, the associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences who led the study.
"We found that more than half of the added carbon dioxide was pulled from the atmosphere within 30,000 to 40,000 years, which is one-third of the time span previously thought," said Bowen, who also is a member of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. "We still don't know exactly where this carbon went, but the evidence suggests it was a much more dynamic response than traditional models represent."
Bowen worked with James Zachos, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to study the end of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, an approximately 170,000-year-long period of global warming that has many features in common with the world's current situation, he said.
"During this prehistoric event billions of tons of carbon was released into the ocean, atmosphere and biosphere, causing warming of about 5 degrees Celsius," Bowen said. "This is a good analog for the carbon being released from fossil fuels today."
Scientists have known of this prehistoric event for 20 years, but how the system recovered and returned to normal atmospheric levels has remained a mystery.
Bowen and Zachos examined samples of marine and terrestrial sediments deposited throughout the event. The team measured the levels of two different types of carbon atoms, the isotopes
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