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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Do high levels of CO2 in the past contradict the warming effect of CO2?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

Climate and CO2 levels have always varied together. During past ice ages CO2 levels were low, and during warm periods CO2 was higher.

Climate Myth...

CO2 was higher in the past

"The killer proof that CO2 does not drive climate is to be found during the Ordovician- Silurian and the Jurassic-Cretaceous periods when CO2 levels were greater than 4000 ppmv (parts per million by volume) and about 2000 ppmv respectively. If the IPCC theory is correct there should have been runaway greenhouse induced global warming during these periods but instead there was glaciation."
(The Lavoisier Group)

At a glance

Before diving headlong into this myth, one key thing needs to be pointed out. The confidence expressed in the above statement. Phrases like 'killer proof' should be enough to ring alarm bells warning the statement is not the work of any credible scientist. Scientific writing is a relatively sober business.

That aside, this myth is about the nature of Earth's atmosphere and climate through deep time. We know quite a bit about that atmosphere now - but far from everything. Through geological studies, we know a lot more about how the planetary climate evolved over time. But far from everything. It's work in progress.

Evolution of climate over deep time was governed by several factors. Fluctuations in the carbon cycle were driven by changes in the balance between CO2 sources and sinks. In those pre-human times, the key CO2 source was volcanic and the key sink was, as now, weathering. Volcanism is still a significant CO2 source - but about a hundredfold less than human emissions.

Weathering is a chemical reaction that involves the breakdown of the minerals making up the rocks of Earth's surface. Its key agent is carbon dioxide dissolved in rainwater, this being a weak acid. Since rainwater delivers the CO2, the intensity of weathering will partly depend upon rainfall. In turn, that depends on how wet - or dry - the climate happens to be in any given place at any given time.

That leads us into palaeogeography - the science of how the layout of the globe has changed through time. Slow changes in layout are driven by plate tectonics and continental drift. Geological evidence tells us that most of the continents on Earth were sometimes gathered together, to form 'supercontinents'. At other times, they were widely dispersed. Such changes in layout through deep time had implications for both the climate and intensity of weathering.

In general terms, the dry interior of a supercontinent reduces weathering, allowing CO2 levels to rise because the sink cannot keep up with the source. A dispersed pattern is a lot better for weathering and the sink can outpace the source, allowing CO2 levels to fall.

Over geological timescales, changes in Solar brightness matter, too. Solar brightness is considered to have increased steadily by about 10% per billion years of Earth's history. In the late Ordovician, 445 million years ago, there would therefore have been 4-5% less sunshine reaching the Earth. That's a big difference and enough to change what is known as the 'ice-threshold' - the point beyond which perennial ice-sheets can exist on Earth's surface.

There was certainly an ice-age in the late Ordovician. There are multiple lines of evidence that lend support to that statement. Dispersed continents favoured weathering and CO2 drawdown. Because of the dimmer Sun, the ice-threshold was set at a much higher CO2 level than in more recent times. Something else happened too. The late Ordovician ice-age was accompanied by the second-greatest mass-extinction in the fossil record. Neither the quote nor its parent document mention that. One wonders why.

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!

Further details

Although our understanding of atmospheric composition through deep time is still a work in progress, we now know enough to state that climate and CO2 levels have always varied together. During ice ages CO2 levels were low, and during warm periods CO2 was higher.

In the Eocene (56-34 million years ago) there were no polar ice caps, temperatures were about 10ºC hotter than the 20th Century, and CO2 was about 1,500ppm (Westerhold et al. 2020, Rae et al. 2021). During the last Ice Age, CO2 varied between about 180 and 300 ppm as ice sheets waxed and waned with orbital wobbles (Rae et al. op.cit.). CO2 was also about that level during the late Paleozoic Ice Age, 340-290 million years ago (Foster et al. 2017).

Early attempts to estimate CO2 for that long ago in Earth’s past were broad-brush and very uncertain (e.g., Royer 2006), leading to the high CO2 estimates referred to in the myth. New data and refined techniques have since clarified the picture considerably. The 2006 estimates, for example, averaged data across 10-million-year timesteps, the 2017 data in the figure below used 0.5-million-year timesteps, and newer compilations don’t average across timesteps. At the same time, CO2 and temperature uncertainties have reduced considerably so that climates from the geological past (e.g., Fig. 1) are now a useful reality check for climate models (Tierney et al. 2020, IPCC 2021, see the intermediate version for more detail).

Data for the Ordovician are less certain, but they suggest that CO2 was about 2,400ppm and falling before the end-Ordovician glaciation (Pancost et al. 2013). Glaciation at higher CO2 levels than today was possible at that time for a variety of reasons including a less-bright Sun back then (see the intermediate version). The Jurassic and Cretaceous span 134 million years with several hothouse episodes and several cooler episodes, with CO2 varying from about 600 ppm to about 1500 ppm accordingly (Witkowski et al. 2018), but there was no glaciation in that time. Earth’s long-term climate (over millions of years) is governed by the balance between CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by volcanoes and CO2 removed from the atmosphere by weathering of rocks. This has prevented runaway climates and kept Earth’s climate generally habitable for about 4 billion years, but it can be outpaced by abrupt greenhouse gas releases (e.g. at the end-Permian mass extinction), or removals (e.g. “Snowball Earth” periods).

CO2 for the last 420 Million Years

Figure 1. CO2 levels for the last 420 million years, showing periods with ice ages. Note this curve is smoothed and too low resolution to show spikes in CO2, eg at the end-Permian, end-Cretaceous, PETM, etc. Data from Foster et al. (2017). Late Paleozoic Ice Age per Rolland et al. (2019). Preindustrial CO2 278 ppm, 2021 CO2 420ppm (CO2.Earth). Newer data zooming in on the last 66 million years can be found on the intermediate tab.

Nevertheless, Earth's climate system has, for the most part, maintained a near-balance in terms of the overall habitability of the planet. This is despite periodic shocks of an internal (e.g. supervolcanic eruptions) or external (e.g. giant impacts) nature. That the key pre-human source of CO2 was volcanic activity and that volcanic activity is largely driven by plate tectonics is likely to be the key to this stability. Plate tectonics is a constant, ongoing process and probably has been for much of Earth history. That CO2 sources and sinks mostly do not stray too far apart - with the unique exception of human emissions - is very likely to be down to plate tectonics and its vital role in the Slow Carbon Cycle through geological time.

Last updated on 7 October 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Comments 1 to 25 out of 105:

  1. The lecture by Richard Alley is good! Very convincing piece of work. I'm wondering a little about why the "skeptic argument" above claims that there was glaciation in the "Jurassic-Cretaceous period". It would indeed be bad for the connection to CO2 if there was widespread glaciation during this period, but I can't find anything about that.
  2. This article seems to acknowledge that the skeptics are completely right. Skeptics do not say that CO2 has no effect, but that it is not the driving force. It is acknowledged in this article that there have been other driving forces in the past that far outweighed the influence of CO2, and it is not a large leap to conclude that there are driving forces today that outweigh CO2.
    Response: The best way to determine whether other driving forces outweigh CO2 forcing is to actually examine all the forcings that drive climate today. This analysis has been done and it's found that CO2 is the greatest forcing and also the fastest rising.
  3. Sorry, but you need to keep in mind the timescales involved. Total solar irradiance has been slowly increasing for a very long time. So it has a large effect on the overall long-term temperature trend of the planet, meaning hundreds of millions of years. That's not really relevant to the timescale of the 21st century. Likewise, the glacial/interglacial cycle plays out on a 26000 - 100000 year timescale. In contrast, we're doubling CO2 on a timescale of a century or so. We're also pumping out CH4, N2O, halocarbons, and other greenhouse gases. Thus, if you look at the actual magnitude of the radiative forcings, over the course of the 21st century the increase in greenhouse gases has a much larger forcing than any changes in TSI, Milankovich, etc.
  4. More a question than a comment. What is the science behind the statement "solar output was about 4% less than current levels"? Is the sun's output increasing over time?
  5. thatnumber5> Yes, the radiation from the sun is increasing. But as Ned says, it increases very slowly. I don't have a good reference for this right now, but try this wiki article on the faint young sun paradox. The general idea is that astronomers think that they have good models for the evolution of stars like the sun, so in particular, they can compute solar output from the age of the sun.
  6. Wow. This topic just came up in the current Greenland melting discussion (#52) so I spent a few minutes looking at denial sites. Widespread indeed is the notion that very high CO2 in geologic past coincided with glaciation and that somehow negates today's relatively paltry 370 ppm CO2. Graphs like this abound: — from the "Frontiers of Freedom" website. There are a couple of very straight-forward holes in these denialist arguments. 1. Ordovician CO2 over 4000 ppm and glaciation proves CO2 doesn't matter! Nope: Look at the distribution of continental landmasses of the Ordovician (~450 MY). Those "glaciers" were the south-polar ice cap. There wasn't much in the way of land in the northern hemisphere. 2. Warming and cooling is purely cyclical! CO2 variation is natural! Sure, there are natural cycles. But something very important and very obvious changed over the geologic time scales involved that makes such simple comparison irrelevant: Plants. Lots of plants. Gymnosperms (conifers etc) originated in the late Devonian-early Carboniferous (380-300 Mya) and angiosperms (flowering plants) in the Cretaceous (100 Mya). All that carbon in the Carboniferous coalbeds? Dead plants that took CO2 out of the atmosphere. The downward trend apparent in the graph above from the Cretaceous forward? More plants. And now we've turned the downward CO2 trend around despite a world rich in plants... maybe we can hope that a whole new class of plant life comes to our rescue... but that would require evolution and the science is still uncertain on that too.

  7. muoncounter, we have a continent at the south pole now, but I suspect that if CO2 were to go over 2000 ppm today most of that ice would (eventually) be gone. As a rough calculation, an increase in solar irradiance by 4% over the past 400 million years would yield something like +9 w/m2 forcing. Compare that to the anthropogenic CO2 forcing of something like +1.5 w/m2 ...
  8. Ned, "if CO2 were to go over 2000 ppm today most of that ice would (eventually) be gone." Agreed. And I certainly am not questioning the role of solar irradiance. But the geological proof that ice once existed at our South Pole -- striated bedrock among other unmistakable features -- would still be there. So any future scientific inquiry -- if there is such an enlightened future -- would say "see, they had 'glaciers' in a time of high CO2!" and conclude that CO2 is unimportant. "increase in solar irradiance by 4% over the past 400 million years" ... "Compare that to the anthropogenic CO2 forcing" 400MY is time enough for evolutionary changes on the grand scale. Isn't anthropogenic forcing is on a time scale of 100s of years? Not enough time for many organisms to get ready for a warmer environment.
  9. Oh, yes, you're quite right .... I'm not at all minimizing the problems resulting from doubling CO2 on short timescales. Just pointing out that when people refer to the very high CO2 in the Paleozoic, 400 million years ago, they need to realize that it was countered by what was a much lower solar irradiance. If CO2 hadn't dropped over time, the world would be more or less uninhabitable today. Or, another way of putting it is that a much smaller increase in CO2 today will produce a climate that would have required much higher CO2 to achieve in the Paleozoic.
  10. Ned, "a much smaller increase in CO2 today will produce a climate that would have required much higher CO2 to achieve in the Paleozoic." That's an excellent way of putting it. The Ordovician's big dropoff in CO2 is usually explained by the massive, continent-wide carbonate banks (Trenton, Knox, Arbuckle, Delaware Basin, etc in the US) deposited in warm, restricted shallow seas. "These carbonate rocks constitute part of the “Great American Bank” (Ginsburg, 1982) that extended more than 3,000 km (1,864 mi) along nearly the entire length of what was the southern seaboard of the Laurentian continental mass" -- Pennsyvania Geological Survey The deposition of carbonates (Ca0+CO2->CaCO3, calcite) is linked to climatic change in this paper: "The accumulation of great volumes of carbonates during pre-Hirnantian late Ordovician, in regions where these deposits were previously absent, is suggested as a major sink of atmospheric CO2. This would have caused an important lowering of the average temperature". We don't see such massive carbonates deposited today.
  11. muoncounter: Thanks for the link to that Villas et al. 2002 paper. That's really neat. They claim that marine carbonate deposition sequestered a mass of carbon equivalent to 350 times the current quantity of atmospheric CO2! I like their explanation of the mechanisms for both the onset and termination of glaciation.
  12. Ned, Those mechanisms are critical to the argument over "high CO2 and glaciation=No". It is certainly clear that widespread carbonate deposition takes up lots of atmospheric CO2, but whether that alone causes an ice age isn't clearly established. It is also clear that the graph of CO2 levels taken from a denialist website, posted above (#6), doesn't take a short-term drop in CO2 due to perfectly valid geological mechanism into account. I have some difficulty with the mechanisms in the "Mountains that froze the world" article John references at the top of this thread. For one thing, the Appalachians weren't all done in the late Ordovician -- it took another 100 MY or so until the Alleghenian Orogeny was complete. The image below is the mid-Ordovician southern ocean: -- source All that light blue is shallow sea -- mostly between 10N and 30S latitude -- perfect environment for carbonate deposition from marine organisms. For another, the idea that Sr86 in Nevada is runoff from the proto-Appalachians just doesn't seem right -- on the map above, Nevada is on the 'north coast' of Laurentia, while the emerging Appalachians are on the 'south coast'. Other mechanisms abound in the literature, from a mega-volcano to a gamma-ray burst. From another key paper on this subject, "the waxing and waning of ice sheets during the Late Ordovician were very sensitive to changes in atmospheric pCO2 and orbital forcing at the obliquity time scale (30–40 k.y.)" I've even seen one author who suggests that the concentration of continental land masses at the south pole would perturb the earth's orbit -- but that's a much longer-time scale event. Please note that I accidentally italicized the last sentence ("We don't see...") in #10. That was my statement and not part of the referenced article.
  13. Thanks, muoncounter. Also, re: Please note that I accidentally italicized the last sentence ("We don't see...") in #10. That was my statement and not part of the referenced article. Yes ... and I solved that by inserting a "/i" tag (in brackets) at the beginning of my comment. :-)
  14. How is solar heat output determined for periods before direct measurement? I ask because the article says solar output was 4% lower during the Ordovician but I can't tell how the number was arrived at.
  15. Here's an excellent writeup on main sequence stars rcglinksi.
  16. Watts has just posted a new article It refers to a new study in PNAS Hope you can comment on this soon.
  17. Robert I don't see anything unusual there. WUWT folks are angry because some poor scientist found out something boxing them in a little bit more.
  18. Thanks Doug.
  19. I think the argument about CO2 levels in the deep past is a bit of a red herring. Yes, CO2 levels were FAR higher in the Ordovician but, correct me if I'm wrong, there were also no land based life forms. Not even land based plant life. Doesn't that make it a little pointless what the CO2 levels were 500 mya?
  20. Just reading through the posts and I noticed your comment. There were land based life forms during the Ordovician. Plant and animal life. I don't know where you heard that there weren't. There was a major extinction event but this just led to a reduction of biodiversity.
  21. Good article.. very insightfull.. One question, how was the percentage of solar output derived. You said that "solar output was about 4% less than current levels.", but there are no sources and no further information as to how the number came about
  22. mmckinstrie, calculations of past solar output come from solar physicists. By studying stars of various sizes and ages they've been able to get a very detailed picture of how stars change throughout their lifetime. See info on the Standard Solar Model for details.
  23. Quoting from the beginning of this post: "When CO2 levels were higher in the past, solar levels were also lower" Can anyone point to a source for the this? And a nice graph showing solar levels in the past?
  24. SRJ - for sun levels in deep time, you dont have measured proxy but rather the calculation based on sun being a main sequence star. See for instance: faint young sun paradox
  25. Shouldn't the title of the article read "DO high levels of CO2 in the past contradict..." (instead of does)?

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