Concealed deep beneath the oceans is a carbon conveyor belt, propelled by plate tectonics. Our understanding of its modern functioning is underpinned by direct observations, but its variability through time has been poorly quantified. Here we reconstruct oceanic plate carbon reservoirs and track the fate of subducted carbon using thermodynamic modelling. In the Mesozoic era, 250 to 66 million years ago, plate tectonic processes had a pivotal role in driving climate change. Triassic–Jurassic period cooling correlates with a reduction in solid Earth outgassing, whereas Cretaceous period greenhouse conditions can be linked to a doubling in outgassing, driven by high-speed plate tectonics. The associated ‘carbon subduction superflux’ into the subcontinental mantle may have sparked North American diamond formation. In the Cenozoic era, continental collisions slowed seafloor spreading, reducing tectonically driven outgassing, while deep-sea carbonate sediments emerged as the Earth’s largest carbon sink. Subduction and devolatilization of this reservoir beneath volcanic arcs led to a Cenozoic increase in carbon outgassing, surpassing mid-ocean ridges as the dominant source of carbon emissions 20 million years ago. An increase in solid Earth carbon emissions during Cenozoic cooling requires an increase in continental silicate weathering flux to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide, challenging previous views and providing boundary conditions for future carbon cycle models.
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Recycled carbonates elevate the electrical conductivity of deeply subducting eclogite in the Earth’s interior
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R.D.M. and S.Z. were supported by Australian Research Council grant IH130200012. S.Z. was also funded by a University of Sydney Robinson Fellowship, and Alfred P. Sloan grants G-2017-9997 and G-2018-11296. A.D. was supported by Australian Research Council Future Fellowship FT190100829. C.M.G. and W.G. were funded by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems (CE110001017). C.M.G. also received funding from ARC Discovery Project DP190100216. PyGPlates and GPlates development is funded by the AuScope National Collaborative Research Infrastructure System (NCRIS) programme. We thank R. Hazen, M. Edmonds and the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) Synthesis Group for discussions, which inspired this paper.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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This file contains the Supplementary Methods, including additional information about the methodology, model uncertainties and workflows, Supplementary Fig. 1 and References.
Excel spreadsheet with key inputs and outputs of our model. In terms of input, the variables listed include all relevant plate tectonic parameters through time, and the outputs include all modelled carbon reservoir fluxes discussed in the paper.
Spreading rates and orthogonal convergence rates through time.
Carbon area density in oceanic mantle lithosphere through time.
Carbon area density in oceanic crust through time.
Carbonate carbon area density in deep sea sediments through time.
Carbon area density in oceanic lithosphere serpentinites through time.
Total carbon area density in oceanic plates through time.
Cumulative carbon area density in the mantle, in a mantle reference frame, due to oceanic crustal carbon subduction.
Cumulative carbon area density in the mantle, in a mantle reference frame, due to oceanic lithospheric mantle carbon subduction.
Cumulative carbon area density in the mantle, in a mantle reference frame, due to oceanic sedimentary carbon subduction.
Cumulative carbon area density in the mantle, in a mantle reference frame, due to subduction of oceanic serpentinized lithospheric mantle carbon.
Cumulative carbon area density in the mantle, in a mantle reference frame, due to total oceanic plate carbon subduction.
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Müller, R.D., Mather, B., Dutkiewicz, A. et al. Evolution of Earth’s tectonic carbon conveyor belt. Nature 605, 629–639 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04420-x
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