A lower limit for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels 3.2 billion years ago


The quantification of greenhouse gases present in the Archaean atmosphere is critical for understanding the evolution of atmospheric oxygen, surface temperatures and the conditions for life on early Earth. For instance, it has been argued1,2,3,4 that small changes in the balance between two potential greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, may have dictated the feedback cycle involving organic haze production and global cooling. Climate models have focused on carbon dioxide as the greenhouse gas responsible for maintaining above-freezing surface temperatures during a time of low solar luminosity5,6. However, the analysis of 2.75-billion-year (Gyr)-old7 palaeosols—soil samples preserved in the geologic record—have recently provided an upper constraint on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels well below that required in most climate models to prevent the Earth's surface from freezing. This finding prompted many to look towards methane as an additional greenhouse gas to satisfy climate models1,4,8,9. Here we use model equilibrium reactions for weathering rinds on 3.2-Gyr-old river gravels to show that the presence of iron-rich carbonate relative to common clay minerals requires a minimum partial pressure of carbon dioxide several times higher than present-day values. Unless actual carbon dioxide levels were considerably greater than this, climate models5,6,8 predict that additional greenhouse gases would still need to have a role in maintaining above-freezing surface temperatures.

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Figure 1: Microscope images of sample pebble 463-1-28d and its weathering rind.
Figure 2: Partial pressure of CO2 as a function of temperature for the three balanced modelling reactions.
Figure 3: Quantitative estimates of atmospheric CO2 over geologic time, compiled from both geologic evidence and long-term models.


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We appreciate the help and samples we received from Avgold and ETC Mines, Barberton, South Africa. Electron microprobe analysis was performed at the Center for Materials Research and Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. We thank T. Fridriksson, K. Lemke, C. Oze and A. Fildani for technical support and advice, and N. Sleep for comments on early versions of this manuscript. This work was supported by the NASA Exobiology Program (D.R.L.) and the National Science Foundation (D.K.B.).

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Correspondence to Angela M. Hessler.

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Hessler, A., Lowe, D., Jones, R. et al. A lower limit for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels 3.2 billion years ago. Nature 428, 736–738 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02471

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