Climate Feedback

Plant power

Why carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 24 million years or so have never dropped below 200 parts per million, despite environmental conditions that have been favourable for CO2 drawdown by rock weathering and sedimentation, has always been a bit of a mystery.

Now scientists suggest an almost provocatively simple mechanism that might have kept the planet from cooling more severely than it actually did during past glacial climates: Changes in terrestrial vegetation stopped the weathering-driven decline in atmospheric CO2 concentrations which else would have turned Earth into a lifeless freezer.

Weathering is known to be largely controlled by vegetation. So the team, led by Mark Pagani of Yale University, describes in a paper in Nature today a negative feedback whereby limited plant growth during cold conditions slows down the rate of weathering and sedimentation, thus preventing carbon dioxide levels from dropping even further. An editor’s summary of the paper is here.

This “bold and provocative” hypothesis provides an “elegant twist” on existing ideas about climate-vegetation interactions, Yves Goddéris and Yannick Donnadieu write in an accompanying News and Views article (subscription required).

But the proposed feedback mechanism raises contentious issues as well. For example, Goddéris and Donnadieu argue that in the tropics the role of vegetation cover in the climate system might not be as significant as proposed.

Quirin Schiermeier


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