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Long-term stability of global erosion rates and weathering during late-Cenozoic cooling

Abstract

Over geologic timescales, CO2 is emitted from the Earth’s interior and is removed from the atmosphere by silicate rock weathering and organic carbon burial. This balance is thought to have stabilized greenhouse conditions within a range that ensured habitable conditions1. Changes in this balance have been attributed to changes in topographic relief, where varying rates of continental rock weathering and erosion1,2 are superimposed on fluctuations in organic carbon burial3. Geological strata provide an indirect yet imperfectly preserved record of this change through changing rates of sedimentation1,2,4. Widespread observations of a recent (0–5-Myr) fourfold increase in global sedimentation rates require a global mechanism to explain them4,5,6. Accelerated uplift and global cooling have been given as possible causes2,4,6,7, but because of the links between rates of erosion and the correlated rate of weathering8,9, an increase in the drawdown of CO2 that is predicted to follow may be the cause of global climate change instead2. However, globally, rates of uplift cannot increase everywhere in the way that apparent sedimentation rates do4,10. Moreover, proxy records of past atmospheric CO2 provide no evidence for this large reduction in recent CO2 concentrations11,12. Here we question whether this increase in global weathering and erosion actually occurred and whether the apparent increase in the sedimentation rate is due to observational biases in the sedimentary record13. As evidence, we recast the ocean dissolved 10Be/9Be isotope system as a weathering proxy spanning the past 12 Myr (ref. 14). This proxy indicates stable weathering fluxes during the late-Cenozoic era. The sum of these observations shows neither clear evidence for increased erosion nor clear evidence for a pulse in weathered material to the ocean. We conclude that processes different from an increase in denudation caused Cenozoic global cooling, and that global cooling had no profound effect on spatially and temporally averaged weathering rates.

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Figure 1: Terrigenous sediment input into the oceans through the late-Cenozoic era and atmospheric CO2.
Figure 2: Sediment accumulation rates and erosion rates as functions of geological time.
Figure 3: Palaeo-ocean dissolved 10 Be/ 9 Be ratios as weathering proxies.

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Acknowledgements

J.K.W. gratefully acknowledges an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellowship.

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J.K.W. and F.v.B. contributed equally to every aspect of the study.

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Correspondence to Jane K. Willenbring or Friedhelm von Blanckenburg.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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J.K.W. is at the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, from July 2010.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Data, which includes a schematic diagram, References, Supplementary Figures A1-A5 with legends and Supplementary Tables A1-A2. (PDF 1424 kb)

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Willenbring, J., von Blanckenburg, F. Long-term stability of global erosion rates and weathering during late-Cenozoic cooling. Nature 465, 211–214 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09044

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