A new study claims that plunge in CO2 put the freeze on Antarctica, as Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels plunged by 40% before and during the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet 34 million years ago.
The finding helps solve a long-standing scientific puzzle and confirms the power of CO2 to dramatically alter global climate.
The study by an international team, published in the journal Science, is the first multidisciplinary research of its kind to show that CO2 was tracking global cooling at that time.
It confirms that significant falls in the greenhouse gas result in global cooling, just as rises result in global warming.
Previous studies had suggested that atmospheric CO2 over the Southern Ocean was climbing during the Eocene to Oligocene climate transition, when ice first formed over Antarctica.
This presented a conundrum, suggesting the climate was warming at the same time as Antarctica was freezing.
But when the vastly different ancient Southern Ocean currents and temperatures of that period were factored in, it quickly became apparent that Antarctica’s big freeze followed a fall in CO2 levels.
The paper, ‘The Role of Carbon Dioxide During the Onset of Antarctic Glaciation’, reinforces carbon dioxide’s place as a primary driver for global temperatures.
The nature of ocean currents is vital in calculating atmospheric CO2, because the estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide are derived from measurements of molecules from algae deposited on the ocean floor at six ocean sites millions of years ago.
The fundamentally different circulation of the Southern Ocean during the Eocene directly affected the algae by changing the temperatures of these ocean currents and significantly lowering the nutrient load. This had a direct impact on the inferred CO2.
The study was lead authored by Mark Pagani, of Yale University, and co-authored by University of NSW Climate Change Research Centre researcher Dr Willem Sijp.