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The carbon cycle before humans
Date:2/16/2010

Geoengineering -- deliberate manipulation of the Earth's climate to slow or reverse global warming -- has gained a foothold in the climate change discussion. But before effective action can be taken, the Earth's natural biogeochemical cycles must be better understood.

Two Northwestern University studies, both published online recently by Nature Geoscience, contribute new -- and related -- clues as to what drove large-scale changes to the carbon cycle nearly 100 million years ago. Both research teams conclude that a massive amount of volcanic activity introduced carbon dioxide and sulfur into the atmosphere, which in turn had a significant impact on the carbon cycle, oxygen levels in the oceans and marine plants and animals.

Both teams studied organic carbon-rich sediments from the Western Interior Seaway, an ancient seabed stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean, to learn more about a devastating event 94.5 million years ago when oxygen levels in the oceans dropped so low that one-third of marine life died.

The authors of the first paper, titled "Volcanic triggering of a biogeochemical cascade during Oceanic Anoxic Event 2," reveal that before oxygen levels dropped so precipitously there was a massive increase in oceanic sulfate levels. Their conclusion is based on analyses of the stable isotopes of sulfur in sedimentary minerals from the central basin of the Western Interior Seaway, located in Colorado.

The researchers theorize that a massive amount of volcanic activity caused this sulfate spike, which triggered a cascade of biogeochemical events. More sulfate led to an abundance of the nutrient phosphorous, which allowed phytoplankton populations in the oceans to multiply. The phytoplankton thrived and then died. Their decomposing bodies depleted oxygen levels in the oceans, leading to the widespread death of marine animals.

The sedimentary burial of marine organic carbon during this event was
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Contact: Megan Fellman
fellman@northwestern.edu
847-491-3115
Northwestern University
Source:Eurekalert

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