The role of terrestrial plants in limiting atmospheric CO2 decline over the past 24 million years

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Abstract

Environmental conditions during the past 24 million years are thought to have been favourable for enhanced rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide drawdown by silicate chemical weathering1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Proxy records indicate, however, that the Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations did not fall below about 200–250 parts per million during this period8. The stabilization of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations near this minimum value suggests that strong negative feedback mechanisms inhibited further drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide by high rates of global silicate rock weathering. Here we investigate one possible negative feedback mechanism, occurring under relatively low carbon dioxide concentrations and in warm climates, that is related to terrestrial plant productivity and its role in the decomposition of silicate minerals9,10,11. We use simulations of terrestrial and geochemical carbon cycles and available experimental evidence to show that vegetation activity in upland regions of active orogens was severely limited by near-starvation of carbon dioxide in combination with global warmth over this period. These conditions diminished biotic-driven silicate rock weathering and thereby attenuated an important long-term carbon dioxide sink. Although our modelling results are semi-quantitative and do not capture the full range of biogeochemical feedbacks that could influence the climate, our analysis indicates that the dynamic equilibrium between plants, climate and the geosphere probably buffered the minimum atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 24 million years.

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Figure 1: The Earth’s CO 2 , tectonic and climatic history over the past 50 Myr.
Figure 2: Simulated dependence of vegetation activity on atmospheric CO 2 concentrations.
Figure 3: Atmospheric CO 2 , critical thresholds, and plant weathering.

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Acknowledgements

Conversations with C. Garzione, M. Hren. J. Berry, and C. Osborne were greatly appreciated. This work was supported, in part, by NSF grant OCE-0095734 (to M.P.) and DOE grant DE-FG02-01ER15173 (to R.A.B.). D.J.B. gratefully acknowledges funding from the Leverhulme Trust and Natural Environment Research Council (NE/E015190/1), and through a Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Award. M.P. acknowledges support from the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.

Author Contributions All four authors were involved in drafting the paper, led by M.P. K.C. and R.A.B. developed and applied procedures for modelling biotic weathering by land plants, and D.J.B. undertook the leaf-scale and global-scale simulations of vegetation processes.

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Correspondence to Mark Pagani.

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Pagani, M., Caldeira, K., Berner, R. et al. The role of terrestrial plants in limiting atmospheric CO2 decline over the past 24 million years. Nature 460, 85–88 (2009) doi:10.1038/nature08133

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