Earth’s last icehouse, 300 million years ago, is considered the longest-lived and most acute of the past half-billion years, characterized by expansive continental ice sheets1,2 and possibly tropical low-elevation glaciation3. This atypical climate has long been attributed to anomalous radiative forcing promoted by a 3% lower incident solar luminosity4 and sustained low atmospheric pCO2 (≤300 ppm)5. Climate models6, however, indicate a CO2 sensitivity of ice-sheet distribution and sea-level response that questions this long-standing climate paradigm by revealing major discrepancy between hypothesized ice distribution, pCO2, and geologic records of glacioeustasy2,6. Here we present a high-resolution record of atmospheric pCO2 for 16 million years of the late Palaeozoic, developed using soil carbonate-based and fossil leaf-based proxies, that resolves the climate conundrum. Palaeo-fluctuations on the 105-yr scale occur within the CO2 range predicted for anthropogenic change and co-vary with substantial change in sea level and ice volume. We further document coincidence between pCO2 changes and repeated restructuring of Euramerican tropical forests that, in conjunction with modelled vegetation shifts, indicate a more dynamic carbon sequestration history than previously considered7,8 and a major role for terrestrial vegetation–CO2 feedbacks in driving eccentricity-scale climate cycles of the late Palaeozoic icehouse.
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We thank D. Breecker for discussion and comments on this work, and R. Barclay, J. Antognini, D. Garello, A. Byrd, R. Chen, C. Marquardt and D. Rauh for assistance in the research, D. Horton for access to palaeoclimate model results, and N. Tabor for a subset of stable isotopic analyses. This work was funded by NSF grants EAR-1338281 (I.P.M.), EAR-1338200 (C.J.P.), EAR-1338247 (J.D.W.), and EAR-1338256 (M.T.H.), and ERC-2011-StG and 279962-OXYEVOL to J.C.M.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Montañez, I., McElwain, J., Poulsen, C. et al. Climate, pCO2 and terrestrial carbon cycle linkages during late Palaeozoic glacial–interglacial cycles. Nature Geosci 9, 824–828 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2822
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