What most people do not realize is that a majority of the carbon found on Earth is bound to its core. Only one-hundred-thousandth of the carbon dioxide on our planet is observed in the atmosphere, biosphere, and oceans. Scientists once believed that deep carbon is released into the atmosphere at mid-oceanic ridges due to volcanic activity. The resulting process bursts out jets of carbon dioxide through a chemical reaction.
This process of degassing carbon dioxide through active volcanoes is not, however, properly constrained. Scientists have noted that such fault systems do not account for the increase of CO2 levels seen in the atmosphere over the last five decades.
A more likely explanation is hypothesized. Authors of the study posit that a large output of CO2 can be explained by the shifts of tectonic plates, or the movements of these large continental areas across the ocean.
Sasha Brune from GFZ and co-author of the research explains: “Rift systems develop by tectonic stretching of the continental crust, which may lead to [a] break-up of entire plates. The East African Rift with a total length of 6,000 km is the largest in the world, but it appears small in comparison to the rift systems which were formed 130 million years ago when the supercontinent Pangea broke apart, comprising a network with a total length of more than 40,000 km.”
Brune and her team came to this conclusion after analyzing plate tectonic models of the past 200 million years and other geological evidence collected from previous research. From there, the team was able to reconstruct how the global rift network evolved and more importantly, how each shift or movement influenced CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Brune used numerical carbon cycle models to simulate the effect of CO2 degassing from these rifts and saw that rifting periods correlated highly with increased CO2 levels.
“The global CO2 degassing rates at rift systems, however, are just a fraction of the anthropogenic carbon release today,” concluded Brune. “Yet, they represent a missing key component of the deep carbon cycle that controls long-term climate change over millions of years.”
Everything seems scarier when you’re at the cusp of something. Global warming and climate change seem all the more real because we are witnessing it happening. Nevertheless, it does more harm than good to panic. A careful look at the Earth’s natural processes reveal that plate tectonics and their associated movements are a part of our planet’s cycles. Previous research has proven that tectonic shifts have both a direct and indirect effect on climate change and CO2 concentrations. (Related: Global warming debunked: NASA report verifies carbon dioxide actually cools atmosphere.)
These analyses conclude that tectonic processes can cause the planet to “heat up” and “cool down” depending on where the Earth is in its cycles. It is speculated that when plates move away or collide with each other (as what has been happening since the breakaway of Pangea), these spark certain reactions. The most obvious example would be earthquakes or volcanic activity. However, these movements may also cause carbon to be forcibly degassed into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.
You can read more stories related to climate change, global warming, or tectonic plate movements at ClimateScienceNews.com.