New 23 million year record of atmospheric carbon dioxide highlights current human influence on the atmosphere

Paper: A 23 m.y. record of low atmospheric CO2

Featured image: Modern vascular land plants (Raphanus sativus), growing in a carbon dioxide experiment (Figure 1A from Jahren et al., 2008)

Authors: Ying Cui, Brian A. Schubert, A. Hope Jahren

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, trapping warmth within the Earth’s atmosphere. Sixty years of measurements on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa summit have shown rising amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. In addition, the carbon dioxide levels in our modern atmosphere are  significantly higher than  those we have seen on Earth over the last 800,000 years, according to measurements on bubbles of ancient air trapped in  Antarctic ice. When combined with measurements of global temperatures, these direct measurements are irrefutable evidence for rapid modern climate change. However, understanding our current position relative to Earth’s climate farther back in time is trickier, since scientists have to estimate atmospheric composition indirectly (through a “proxy”). A new study tackles this problem with a new method of estimating past carbon dioxide, showing  that modern carbon dioxide levels have been unprecedented since at least 7 million years ago.

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Hillsides collapsing into Arctic streams can trigger CO2 release to the atmosphere

Permafrost thaw slumps draining into a river on the Peel Plateau in western Canada

Featured Image: Permafrost thaw slumps draining into a river on the Peel Plateau in western Canada. Photo courtesy Scott Zolkos, lead author of the paper.

Paper: Experimental Evidence That Permafrost Thaw History and Mineral Composition Shape Abiotic Carbon Cycling in Thermokarst-Affected Stream Networks

Authors: Zolkos, Scott & Suzanne E. Tank.

The rivers and streams of the Arctic transfer atmospheric heat into the surrounding permafrost (perennially frozen) soil. At the same time, surface soils up to 1 meter deep undergo annual freeze-thaw cycles. When warmer air arrives in the summer months, the combination of warming air and river water can thaw large chunks of ice-rich permafrost soil along the stream’s edge. Thawed permafrost breaks away from the surrounding hillsides and causes catastrophic slope failures, transporting huge amounts of sediment into the nearby waterways. As the stream water becomes murky it takes on the appearance of chocolate milk, and simultaneously, the geochemistry of the water changes.

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