IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

6.3 The Pre-Quaternary Climates

6.3.1 What is the Relationship Between Carbon Dioxide and Temperature in this Time Period?

Pre-Quaternary climates prior to 2.6 Ma (e.g., Figure 6.1) were mostly warmer than today and associated with higher CO2 levels. In that sense, they have certain similarities with the anticipated future climate change (although the global biology and geography were increasingly different further back in time). In general, they verify that warmer climates are to be expected with increased greenhouse gas concentrations. Looking back in time beyond the reach of ice cores, that is, prior to about 1 Ma, data on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere become much more uncertain. However, there are ongoing efforts to obtain quantitative reconstructions of the warm climates over the past 65 Myr and the following subsections discuss two particularly relevant climate events of this period.

How accurately is the relationship between CO2 and temperature known? There are four primary proxies used for pre-Quaternary CO2 levels (Jasper and Hayes, 1990; Royer et al., 2001; Royer, 2003). Two proxies apply the fact that biological entities in soils and seawater have carbon isotope ratios that are distinct from the atmosphere (Cerling, 1991; Freeman and Hayes, 1992; Yapp and Poths, 1992; Pagani et al., 2005). The third proxy uses the ratio of boron isotopes (Pearson and Palmer, 2000), while the fourth uses the empirical relationship between stomatal pores on tree leaves and atmospheric CO2 content (McElwain and Chaloner, 1995; Royer, 2003). As shown in Figure 6.1 (bottom panel), while there is a wide range of reconstructed CO2 values, magnitudes are generally higher than the interglacial, pre-industrial values seen in ice core data. Changes in CO2 on these long time scales are thought to be driven by changes in tectonic processes (e.g., volcanic activity source and silicate weathering drawdown; e.g., Ruddiman, 1997). Temperature reconstructions, such as that shown in Figure 6.1 (middle panel), are derived from O isotopes (corrected for variations in the global ice volume), as well as Mg/Ca in forams and alkenones. Indicators for the presence of continental ice on Earth show that the planet was mostly ice-free during geologic history, another indication of the general warmth. Major expansion of antarctic glaciations starting around 35 to 40 Ma was likely a response, in part, to declining atmospheric CO2 levels from their peak in the Cretaceous (~100 Ma) (DeConto and Pollard, 2003). The relationship between CO2 and temperature can be traced further back in time as indicated in Figure 6.1 (top panel), which shows that the warmth of the Mesozoic Era (230–65 Ma) was likely associated with high levels of CO2 and that the major glaciations around 300 Ma likely coincided with low CO2 concentrations relative to surrounding periods.

Figure 6.1

Figure 6.1. (Top) Atmospheric CO2 and continental glaciation 400 Ma to present. Vertical blue bars mark the timing and palaeolatitudinal extent of ice sheets (after Crowley, 1998). Plotted CO2 records represent five-point running averages from each of the four major proxies (see Royer, 2006 for details of compilation). Also plotted are the plausible ranges of CO2 from the geochemical carbon cycle model GEOCARB III (Berner and Kothavala, 2001). All data have been adjusted to the Gradstein et al. (2004) time scale. (Middle) Global compilation of deep-sea benthic foraminifera 18O isotope records from 40 Deep Sea Drilling Program and Ocean Drilling Program sites (Zachos et al., 2001) updated with high-resolution records for the Eocene through Miocene interval (Billups et al., 2002; Bohaty and Zachos, 2003; Lear et al., 2004). Most data were derived from analyses of two common and long-lived benthic taxa, Cibicidoides and Nuttallides. To correct for genus-specific isotope vital effects, the 18O values were adjusted by +0.64 and +0.4 (Shackleton et al., 1984), respectively. The ages are relative to the geomagnetic polarity time scale of Berggren et al. (1995). The raw data were smoothed using a five-point running mean, and curve-fitted with a locally weighted mean. The 18O temperature values assume an ice-free ocean (–1.0‰ Standard Mean Ocean Water), and thus only apply to the time preceding large-scale antarctic glaciation (~35 Ma). After the early Oligocene much of the variability (~70%) in the 18O record reflects changes in antarctic and Northern Hemisphere ice volume, which is represented by light blue horizontal bars (e.g., Hambrey et al., 1991; Wise et al., 1991; Ehrmann and Mackensen, 1992). Where the bars are dashed, they represent periods of ephemeral ice or ice sheets smaller than present, while the solid bars represent ice sheets of modern or greater size. The evolution and stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (e.g., Lemasurier and Rocchi, 2005) remains an important area of uncertainty that could affect estimates of future sea level rise. (Bottom) Detailed record of CO2 for the last 65 Myr. Individual records of CO2 and associated errors are colour-coded by proxy method; when possible, records are based on replicate samples (see Royer, 2006 for details and data references). Dating errors are typically less than ±1 Myr. The range of error for each CO2 proxy varies considerably, with estimates based on soil nodules yielding the greatest uncertainty. Also plotted are the plausible ranges of CO2 from three geochemical carbon cycle models.