How Quickly Can the World Cool?

“An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time.” – Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption

Rocks take a hell of a long time to form and just like people, they are influenced by their surroundings. A rock can tell you a lot about the time period in which it was formed. It can hold fossils that show what animals were living. It can be composed of sedimentation indicating the presence of an ocean. It can even tell you about the conditions of the atmosphere.

One such indicator is the abundance of carbon-12 versus carbon-13. The two isotopes differ only in the presence of an extra neutron in the nucleus of carbon-13. While there is basically no difference between the two, plants prefer to use carbon-12 to photosynthesize their lunch. As some rocks form, they also pull carbon from the atmosphere, though at a much reduced rate. But since rocks aren’t as picky about their preferred isotope, scientists can determine the ratio of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere by analyzing the ratio in the rocks.

What’s that you say? Well whoopdy-doo?

The amount of carbon-12 in the air is directly indicative of the amount of biomass on the planet as well as the climate. Using this tool, scientists from Purdue recently took a closer look in a paper recently published in Nature Geoscience at one of the most recent global warming events on record – the end of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a 170,000-year-long period roughly 56 million years ago of global warming that has many features in common with the world’s current situation.

They were curious as to how long it took for the world to rebound from its five degree Celsius spike in temperature. By measuring the ratio of carbon isotopes, lead author Gabriel Bowen could tell how quickly carbon dioxide was being pulled out of the atmosphere.

According to the study, the world rebounded about three times faster from the warming period than was previously thought. Though nobody knows for sure where the carbon went, Bowen hypothesizes that an exponentially increasing biomass was soaking it up at incredible rates, helping the Earth to return to its normal equilibrium.

While that may sound like a great result given the direction our plant currently is headed, it’s not so much.

It still took 30,000 to 40,000 years for the world to recover.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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