COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Researchers here have discovered the pivotal role that volcanoes played in a deadly ice age 450 million years ago.
Perhaps ironically, these volcanoes first caused global warming -- by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
When they stopped erupting, Earth's climate was thrown off balance, and the ice age began.
The discovery underscores the importance of carbon in Earth's climate today, said Matthew Saltzman, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.
The results will appear in the journal Geology, in a paper now available online.
Previously, Saltzman and his team linked this same ice age to the rise of the Appalachian Mountains. As the exposed rock weathered, chemical reactions pulled carbon from Earth's atmosphere, causing a global cooling which ultimately killed two-thirds of all species on the planet.
Now the researchers have discovered the other half of the story: giant volcanoes that formed during the closing of the proto-Atlantic Ocean -- known as the Iapetus Ocean -- set the stage for the rise of the Appalachians and the ice age that followed.
"Our model shows that these Atlantic volcanoes were spewing carbon into the atmosphere at the same time the Appalachians were removing it," Saltzman explained. "For nearly 10 million years, the climate was at a stalemate. Then the eruptions abruptly stopped, and atmospheric carbon levels fell well below what they were in the time before volcanism. That kicked off the ice age," he said.
This is the first evidence that a decrease in carbon from volcanic degassing -- combined with continued weathering of the Appalachians -- caused the long-enigmatic glaciation and extinction in the Ordovician period.
Here is the picture the researchers have assembled: 460 million years ago, during the Ordovician, volcanoes along the margin of what is now the Atlantic Ocean s
|Contact: Matthew Saltzman|
Ohio State University