Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Paleoclimatology is the study of climate change taken on the scale of the entire history of the earth.
The beginning of Earth's climate
Life flourishes in the Cambrian
The earth's history dates back more than 4.5 billion years (Ga) which is divided roughly into 2 eons called the "cryptozoic" [Gr. kryptos, hidden + zoo, life] and the "Phanerozoic" [Gr. phanerous, visible + zoo, life]. [Paleoclimatologists usually use geological time divisions, which would be the Priscoan, Archean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic Eons.] The division of these two eons is the boundary of the Precambrian and the Cambrian which occurred about 570Ma (570Ma means 570 million years before present, ie 570,000,000 BP). Originally it was thought that life began with the Cambrian. Evidence suggests that during this time the earth experienced perhaps the biggest explosion of diverse life forms that ever have been on the planet, and that since that time the total number of phyla has been gradually reduced with extinction after extinction (ref. Stephen Jay Gould: Wonderful life - the Story of the Cambrian and the Burgess Shale). Some influential researchers, including Briton Simon Conway Morris, an expert in the Burgess Shales, dispute the assertion that there were significantly more phyla at this time, suggesting that a number of creatures assigned to new phyla (particularly Hallucigenia) were actually arthropods or onychophores. Later work established that life evolved rather early in the history of the planet, perhaps as long as 4 billion years ago. Recent research suggests that life appeared on Earth just as soon as the planet cooled sufficiently for it to do so, and indeed may have arisen and been destroyed multiple times by planetismal impacts before the planet stabilized. This possibility has prompted some scientists to suggest that life is common in the universe, since it appeared so quickly here.
Techniques of paleoclimatology
Paleoclimatologists employ a wide variety of skills to arrive at their theories and conclusions.
Glaciers are a widely employed instrument in Paleoclimatology. The ice in glaciers has hardened into an identifiable pattern, with each year leaving a distinct layer. Inside of these layers scientists have found pollen, allowing them to estimate the total amount of plant growth of that year by the pollen count. The thickness of the layer can help to determine the amount of rainfall that year. It is estimated that the polar ice caps have 100,000 of these layers or more.
Petrified tree rings give Paleoclimatology data over a much larger stretch of time. The fossil itself is dated with radioactive dating within a wide margin of error. The rings themselves can give some information about rainfall and temperature during that epoch.
Sedimentary rock layers provide a more compressed view of climate, as each layer of sediment is made over a period of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Scientists can get a grasp of long term climate by studying sedimentary rock. Some scientists believe each layer designates a major change in climate.
Some of the mile stones that mark the history of the planet are as follows:
3,700Ma - oldest rocks
3,500Ma - oldest stromatolites
3,500Ma - first evidence of sex [ref. Origins of Sex : Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Yale University Press, Hartford, Connecticut, 1990, trade paperback, ISBN 0300046197 ]
3,450Ma - earliest bacteria
3,800Ma - banded iron formations (with reduced iron)
3,000Ma - earliest precambrian ice ages [need ref] [?] - Chuos Tillites of South-West Africa [?] - Sturtian Tillites of the Finders Range, South-central Australia
3,000Ma - earliest photosynthetic bacteria
2,700Ma - oldest chemical evidence of complex cells
2,000Ma - free oxygen in the atmosphere
2,000Ma to 1600Ma - Gowganda tillites in the Canadian shield
1,700Ma - end of the banded iron formations and red beds become abundant (non-reducing atmosphere)
700Ma - first metazoans late Proterozoic (Ediacaran Epoch) - first skeletons
570Ma to present - Phanerozic Eon [history of the phanerozoic goes in here]
100Ma - development of the angiosperms (flowering plants)
2Ma to present - modern world and man's appearance on earth [whole history of man goes in here about 1/2000th of the time scale]
0.01Ma - end of the last ice age
0.001Ma - warming trend of the middle ages
0.0001Ma - end of the mini ice age
0.00022Ma to present - industrialized world and the introduction of man made greenhouse gases. [we need a chart showing all this - horizontal format I think will be best - with zoom capability]
History of the atmosphere
The earliest atmosphere of the Earth was probably blown off early in the history of the planet. These gases were later replaced by an atmosphere derived from outgassing from the Earth. It is in this way that the oceans and the present atmosphere came to be.
Carbon dioxide and free oxygen
Free oxygen did not exist until about 1,700Ma and this can be seen with the development of the red beds and the end of the banded iron formations. This signifies a shift from a reducing atmosphere to an oxidising atmosphere. The early atmosphere and hydrosphere (up until about 2,000Ma) were devoid of free Oxygen. Gradually early photosynthesis managed to convert the abundant CO2 releasing O2.
The very early atmosphere of the earth contained mostly carbon dioxide (CO2) : about 80%. This gradually dropped to about 20% by 3,500Ma. This coincides with the development of the first bacteria about 3,500Ma. By the time of the development of photosynthesis (2,700Ma), CO2 levels in the atmosphere were in the range of 15%. During the period from about 2,700Ma to about 2,000Ma, photosythesis dropped the CO2 concentrations from about 15% to about 8%. By about 2,000Ma free O2 was beginning to accumulate. This gradual reduction in CO2 levels continued to about 600Ma at which point CO2 levels were below 1% and O2 levels had risen to more than 15%. 600Ma corresponds to the end of the Precambrian and the beginning of the Cambrian, the end of the cryptozoic and the beginning of the Phanerozic, and the beginning of oxygen-breathing life.
The climate of the late Precambrian was typically cold with glaciation spreading over much of the earth. At this time the continents were bunched up in a supercontinent called Rodinia. Massive deposits of tillites are found and anomalous isotopic signatures are found which are consistent with the idea that the earth at this time was a massive snowball. Click here for a map of Rodinia at the end of the Precambrian [Click Link] after Australia and Antarctica rotated away from the southern hemisphere. [- can we get a picture of the geological section from the Flinders Range?]
As the Proterozoic Eon drew to a close the earth started to warm up. By the dawn of the Cambrian and the Phanerozoic Eon, Earth was experiencing average global temperatures of about +22C. Hundreds of millions of years of ice were replaced with the balmy tropical seas of the Cambrian Period within which life exploded at a rate never seen before or after. [ref. Stephen Jay Gould - Wonderful life, the story of the Burgess Shale].
The establishment of CO2-consuming (and Oxygen-producing) photosythesizing organisms in the Precambrian led to the production of an atmosphere much like today's, though generally much higher in CO2 than today. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has been gradually decreasing from a concentration of 7000 ppm 530 million years ago. In fact, only the Carboniferous Period and our present age, the Quaternary Period, have witnessed CO2 levels less than 400 ppm (see article "Climate and the Carboniferous Period" Earth's atmosphere today contains about 370 ppm CO2 (0.037%). To see a graph of the world's average temperature and and the CO2 levels throughout the Phanerozoic, [Click this Link]
The Earth's temperature during the Phanerozoic has been either ~12C or ~22C, but it has seldom stayed at an intermediate value for any significant length of time. For most of the past 600 million years the world's average temperature was about 22C. The exceptions to that are as follows. For a short period at the end of the Ordovician (~440 mybp) there was a drop to about 12C that lasted a few million years. In the Upper Devonian through most of the Mississippian (~370 mybp to ~310 mybp) the temperature dropped to about 20C. Then, during the Pennsylvanian and Permian (~310 mybp to ~250 mybp) there was a protracted period when the world's average temperature again dropped to about 12C. For a few million years around the end of the Jurassic and the beginning of the Cretaceous there was another drop, but this time only to about 17C. For the last 40 million years or so the world's temperature has been dropping and is now again hovering around 12C.
Geologically short-term (<120,000 year) temperatures are believed to be driven by orbital factors (see Milankovitch cycles). The arrangements of land masses on the Earth's surface are believed to reinforce these orbital forcing effects.
The timing of ice ages throughout geologic history is in part controlled by the position of the continental plates on the surface of the Earth. When landmasses are concentrated near the polar regions, there is an increased chance for snow and ice to accumulate. Small changes in solar energy can tip the balance between summers in which the winter snow mass completely melts and summers in which the winter snow persists until the following winter. See the web site Paleomap Project for images of the polar landmass distributions through time.
Comparisons of plate tectonic continent reconstructions and paleoclimatic studies show that the Milankovitch cycles have the greatest effect during geologic eras when landmasses have been concentrated in polar regions, as is the case today. Today, Greenland, Antarctica, and the northern portions of Europe, Asia, and North America are situated such that a minor change in solar energy will tip the balance between year-round snow/ice preservation and complete summer melting. The presence of snow and ice is a well-understood positive feedback mechanism for climate. The Earth today is considered to be prone to ice age glaciations.
- Bradley, R.S. (1985). Quaternary paleoclimatology: Methods of paleoclimatic reconstruction. Allen & Unwin.
- Crowley, T.J., and North, G.R. (1991). Paleoclimatology. Oxford. ISBN 0195105338
- Imbrie, J., and Imbrie, K.P. (1979). Ice ages: Solving the mystery. Enslow.
- WWW Virtual Library: Paleoclimatology and Paleoceanography
- A Brief Introduction to History of Climate, an excellent overview by Prof. Richard A Muller of UC Berkley.
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