A DECADE ago, Lovelock and Whitfield1 raised the question of how much longer the biosphere can survive on Earth. They pointed out that, despite the current fossil-fuel induced increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration, the long-term trend should be in the opposite direction: as increased solar luminosity warms the Earth, silicate rocks should weather more readily, causing atmospheric CO2 to decrease. In their model1, atmospheric CO2 falls below the critical level for C3 photosynthesis, 150 parts per million (p.p.m.), in only 100 Myr, and this is assumed to mark the demise of the biosphere as a whole. Here, we re-examine this problem using a more elaborate model that includes a more accurate treatment of the greenhouse effect of CO2 (refs 2–4), a biologically mediated weathering parameterization, and the realization that C4 photosynthesis can persist to much lower concentrations of atmospheric CO2(<10 p.p.m.)5,6. We find that a C4-plant-based biosphere could survive for at least another 0.9 Gyr to 1.5 Gyr after the present time, depending respectively on whether CO2 or temperature is the limiting factor. Within an additional 1 Gyr, Earth may lose its water to space, thereby following the path of its sister planet, Venus.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Lovelock, J. E. & Whitfield, M. Nature 296, 561–563 (1982).
Kasting, J. F. & Ackerman, T. P. Science 234, 1383–1385 (1986).
Kasting, J. F. Paleogeogr. Paleoclimat. Paleoecol. 75, 83–95 (1989).
Kasting, J. F., Whitfield, D. P., & Reynolds, R. T. Icarus (in the press).
Heath, O. V. S. The Physiological Aspects of Photosynthesis (Stanford Univ. Press, (1969).
Pearcy, R. W. & Ehleringer, J. Plant Cell Envir. 7, 1–13 (1984).
Newman, M. J. & Rood, R. T. Science 198, 1035–1037 (1977).
Gough, D. O. Solar Phys. 74, 21–34 (1981).
Sackman, I.-J., Boothroyd, A. I. & Fowler, W. A. Astrophys. J. 360, 727–736 (1990).
Walker, J. C. G., Hays, P. B. & Kasting, J. F. J. geophys. Res. 86, 9776–9782 (1981).
Caldeira, K. Geology 19, 204–206 (1991).
Manabe, S. & Wetherald, R. T. J. atmos. Sci. 24, 241–259 (1967).
Sillen, L. G. in Oceanography (ed. Sears, M.) 549–581 (Am. Assoc. Adv. Sci., Washington DC. 1961).
Stumm, W. & Morgan, J. J. Aquatic Chemistry (Wiley, New York, 1981).
Miller, A. G., Turpin, D. H. & Canvin, D. T. Plant Physiol. 75, 1064–1070 (1984).
Rossow, W. B., Henderson-Sellers, A. & Weinreich, S. K. Science 217, 1245–1247 (1982).
Brock, T. D. Science 230, 132–138 (1985).
Baross, J. A. & Deming, J. W. Nature 303, 423–426 (1983).
Stetter, K. O. in Thermophiles: General, Molecular, and Applied Microbiology (ed. Brock, T. D.) 39–74 (Wiley, New York, 1986).
Kasting, J. F. Icarus 74, 472–494 (1988).
Watson, A. J., Donahue, T. M. & Walker, J. C. G. Icarus 48, 150–166 (1981).
Sleep, N. H., Zahnle, K. J., Kasting, J. F. & Morowitz, H. J. Nature 342, 139–142 (1989).
Chameides, W. L. J. geophys. Res. 89, 4739–4755 (1984).
Blum, A. & Lasaga, A. C. Nature 331, 431–433 (1988).
Wogelius, R. A. & Walther, J. V. Geochim. cosmochim. Acta 55, 943–954 (1991).
Lagache, M. Bull. Soc. Franc. Miner. Crist. 88, 223–253 (1965).
Lagache, M. Geochim. cosmochim. Acta 40, 157–161 (1976).
Volk, T. Am. J. Sci. 287, 763–779 (1987).
About this article
Cite this article
Caldeira, K., Kasting, J. The life span of the biosphere revisited. Nature 360, 721–723 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1038/360721a0
The impacts of land plant evolution on Earth's climate and oxygenation state – An interdisciplinary review
Chemical Geology (2020)
The end of life on Earth is not the end of the world: converging to an estimate of life span of the biosphere?
International Journal of Astrobiology (2020)
Global Biogeochemical Cycles (2020)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020)
Nature Communications (2019)