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Onset and ending of the late Palaeozoic ice age triggered by tectonically paced rock weathering

Abstract

The onset of the late Palaeozoic ice age about 340 million years ago has been attributed to a decrease in atmospheric CO2 concentrations associated with expansion of land plants, as plants both enhance silicate rock weathering—which consumes CO2—and increase the storage of organic carbon on land. However, plant expansion and carbon uptake substantially predate glaciation. Here we use climate and carbon cycle simulations to investigate the potential effects of the uplift of the equatorial Hercynian mountains and the assembly of Pangaea on the late Palaeozoic carbon cycle. In our simulations, mountain uplift during the Late Carboniferous caused an increase in physical weathering that removed the thick soil cover that had inhibited silicate weathering. The resulting increase in chemical weathering was sufficient to cause atmospheric CO2 concentrations to fall below the levels required to initiate glaciation. During the Permian, the lowering of the mountains led to a re-establishment of thick soils, whilst the assembly of Pangaea promoted arid conditions in continental interiors that were unfavourable for silicate weathering. These changes allowed CO2 concentrations to rise to levels sufficient to terminate the glacial event. Based on our simulations, we suggest that tectonically influenced carbon cycle changes during the late Palaeozoic were sufficient to initiate and terminate the late Palaeozoic ice age.

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Figure 1: Time evolution of the isotopic composition of seawater, atmospheric CO2 levels and the organic carbon burial over the late Palaeozoic.
Figure 2: Calculated contribution of the weathering of the Hercynian mountains to the global weathering flux.
Figure 3: Palaeogeographic pattern of the CO2 consumption by silicate weathering.

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Acknowledgements

CNRS INSU/SYSTER program and the ANR projects TERRES and Anox-Sea have provided funding for this work. We thank the CEA/CCRT for providing access to the HPC resources of TGCC under the allocation 2015–012212 made by GENCI.

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Y.G. and Y.D. conceived the study and wrote the paper with contributions from all co-authors. The physical erosion model was developed by Y.G., S.C. and Y.D.; Y.G. and Y.D. performed the simulations. G.D., M.A., M.M. and V.R. reconstructed the palaeogeographic settings of the late Palaeozoic (five maps).

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yves Goddéris or Yannick Donnadieu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Goddéris, Y., Donnadieu, Y., Carretier, S. et al. Onset and ending of the late Palaeozoic ice age triggered by tectonically paced rock weathering. Nature Geosci 10, 382–386 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2931

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