Feedbacks controlling long-term fluxes in the carbon cycle and in particular atmospheric carbon dioxide are critical in stabilizing the Earth’s long-term climate. It has been hypothesized that atmospheric CO2 concentrations over millions of years are controlled by a CO2-driven weathering feedback that maintains a mass balance between the CO2 input to the atmosphere from volcanism, metamorphism and net organic matter oxidation, and its removal by silicate rock weathering and subsequent carbonate mineral burial1,2,3,4. However, this hypothesis is frequently challenged by alternative suggestions, many involving continental uplift and either avoiding the need for a mass balance or invoking fortuitously balanced fluxes in the organic carbon cycle5,6,7,8,9. Here, we present observational evidence for a close mass balance of carbon cycle fluxes during the late Pleistocene epoch. Using atmospheric CO2 concentrations from ice cores10,11,12, we show that the mean long-term trend of atmospheric CO2 levels is no more than 22 p.p.m.v. over the past 610,000 years. When these data are used in combination with indicators of ocean carbonate mineral saturation to force carbon cycle models, the maximum imbalance between the supply and uptake of CO2 is 1–2% during the late Pleistocene. This long-term balance holds despite glacial–interglacial variations on shorter timescales. Our results provide support for a weathering feedback driven by atmospheric CO2 concentrations that maintains the observed fine mass balance.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 print issues and online access
$259.00 per year
only $21.58 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Similar content being viewed by others
Walker, J. C. G., Hays, P. B. & Kasting, J. F. Negative feedback mechanism for the long-term stabilization of earth’s surface temperature. J. Geophys. Res. 86, 9776–9782 (1981).
Berner, R. A., Lasaga, A. C. & Garrels, R. M. The carbonate-silicate geochemical cycle and its effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 100 million years. Am. J. Sci. 283, 641–683 (1983).
Caldeira, K. Enhanced Cenozoic chemical weathering and the subduction of pelagic carbonate. Nature 357, 578–581 (1992).
Volk, T. Cooling in the late Cenozoic. Nature 361, 123 (1993).
Raymo, M. E., Ruddiman, W. F. & Froelich, P. N. Influence of late Cenozoic mountain building on ocean geochemical cycles. Geology 16, 649–653 (1988).
Francois, L. M. & Walker, J. C. G. Modelling the Phanerozoic carbon cycle and climate: Constraints from the 87Sr/86Sr isotopic ratio of seawater. Am. J. Sci. 292, 81–135 (1992).
Bickle, M. J. Metamorphic decarbonation, silicate weathering and the long-term carbon cycle. Terra Nova 8, 270–276 (1996).
McCauley, S. E. & DePaolo, D. J. in Tectonic Uplift and Climate Change (ed. Ruddiman, W. F.) 428–465 (Plenum, New York, 1997).
Edmond, J. M. & Huh, Y. Non-steady state carbonate recycling and implications for the evolution of atmospheric P CO 2 . Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 216, 125–139 (2003).
Petit, J. R. et al. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Nature 399, 429–436 (1999).
Fischer, H., Wahlen, M., Smith, J., Mastroianni, D. & Deck, B. Ice core records of atmospheric CO2 around the last three glacial terminations. Science 283, 1712–1714 (1999).
Siegenthaler, U. et al. Stable carbon cycle-climate relationship during the Late Pleistocene. Science 310, 1313–1317 (2005).
Walker, J. C. G. & Kasting, J. F. Effects of fuel and forest conservation on future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 97, 151–189 (1992).
Key, R. M. et al. A global ocean carbon climatology: Results from GLODAP. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 18, GB4031 (2004).
Dessert, C. et al. Erosion of Deccan Traps determined by river geochemistry: Impact on the global climate and the 87Sr/86Sr ratio of seawater. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 188, 459–474 (2001).
Berner, R. A. A model for atmospheric CO2 over Phanerozoic time. Am. J. Sci. 291, 339–376 (1991).
Sundquist, E. T. Steady-and non-steady-state carbonate-silicate controls on atmospheric CO2 . Quat. Sci. Rev. 10, 283–296 (1991).
Kasting, J. F. & Catling, D. Evolution of a habitable planet. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 41, 429–63 (2003).
Berner, R. A. & Caldeira, K. The need for mass balance and feedback in the geochemical carbon cycle. Geology 25, 955–956 (1997).
Broecker, W. S. & Sanyal, A. Does atmospheric CO2 police the rate of chemical weathering? Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 12, 403–408 (1998).
Zeebe, R. E. & Wolf-Gladrow, D. A. CO2 in Seawater: Equilibrium, Kinetics, Isotopes 346pp (Elsevier Oceanography Series, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2001).
Broecker, W. S. & Peng, T.-H. The role of CaCO3 compensation in the glacial to interglacial atmospheric CO2 change. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 1, 5–29 (1987).
Zeebe, R. E. & Westbroek, P. A simple model for the CaCO3 saturation state of the ocean: The ‘Strangelove’, the ‘Neritan’, and the ‘Cretan’ Ocean. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 4, 1104 (2003).
Farrell, J. W. & Prell, W. L. Climatic change and CaCO3 preservation: An 800,000 year bathymetric reconstruction from the central equatorial Pacific Ocean. Paleoceanography 4, 447–466 (1989).
Zachos, J. C., Dickens, G. R. & Zeebe, R. E. An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. Nature 451, 279–283 (2008).
Munhoven, G. Glacial-interglacial changes of continental weathering: Estimates of the related CO2 and HCO3− flux variations and their uncertainties. Glob. Planet. Change 33, 155–176 (2002).
Foster, G. L. & Vance, D. Negligible glacial–interglacial variation in continental chemical weathering rates. Nature 444, 918–921 (2006).
We thank B. Berner for reviewing the manuscript. R.E.Z. is indebted to J. Knies for providing the search expression firstname.lastname@example.org and for discussions about organic carbon burial that sparked thinking about long-term fluxes.
About this article
Cite this article
Zeebe, R., Caldeira, K. Close mass balance of long-term carbon fluxes from ice-core CO2 and ocean chemistry records. Nature Geosci 1, 312–315 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo185
This article is cited by
Earth Systems and Environment (2021)
Communications Earth & Environment (2020)
Effect of catchment lithology on dissolved inorganic carbon budgets in suburban streams of Baltimore, Maryland, during rainfall minima
Geosciences Journal (2020)
Nature Geoscience (2019)
Taxonomic and functional characterization of a microbial community from a volcanic englacial ecosystem in Deception Island, Antarctica
Scientific Reports (2019)