Paris, May 14, 2008
Evolution of greenhouse gases over the last 800,000 years
absence of greenhouse gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane...), the
average temperature on earth would be -18°C, resulting in conditions unable to
sustain life. The concentration of these gases in the atmosphere has
substantially increased over time, due to human activity (fossil fuel
combustion, development of agriculture). Studying the evolution of these
concentrations allows us to better understand their interaction with the
earth’s climate, and this type of study is carried thanks to ice cores, which
contain the only available records of greenhouse gas levels.
An ice core drilled in Antartica near the Franco-Italian base Dome Concordia, as part of the EPICA project, reached 3270 meters in December 2004, stopping a few meters above solid rock. At these depths, the ice dates back 800,000 years, or 8 glaciary-interglaciary climatic cyles. This is the oldest ice ever cored until now, and the analysis of gas bubbles trapped in the ice has allowed recordings of levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere 800,000 years ago (previous recordings only went back as far as 650,000 years ago). In light of these new measurements, researchers have access, for the first time, to reference curves for levels of CO2 and CH4 showing the evolution of the gases in ancient times. This is precious information for scientists attempting to understand the correlation between climate change on earth and the carbon cycle. These results give hope for better predictions of future levels of greenhouse gases, and in theory, of the earth’s climate.
This work has already enabled researchers to make major progress in certain areas. It confirms the close correlation between temperatures recorded in Antartica in the past and atmospheric levels of CO2 and CH4. Another significant observation is that never, in 800,000 years, have greenhouse gas levels been as high as they are today (current levels surpass 380 ppmv(5) forCO2 and 1800 ppbv(6) for CH4). The CO2 curve also shows that the lowest levels ever recorded were 172 ppmv, 667,000 years ago. Moreover, researchers have shown the existence of a modulation in atmospheric CO2 levels on a relatively long time scale, namely several hundreds of thousands of years. This unique phenomenon could stem from the more of less significant intensity of continental erosion which affects the carbon cycle over large time scales.
Thanks to the remarkably detailed records of atmospheric methane, researchers have noted an increase over time in the periodicity of a component called precession(7). This signal, which is correlated to monsoon intensities in South East Asia over millenia, probably reflects an intensification of the monsoon in tropical regions over the last 800,000 years. The methane curve shows rapid fluctuations at the millenial scale which are recurrent for each ice age. The mark of such events can also been seen in the CO2 signal from 770,000 years ago, when the earth entered a new ice after the magnetic reversal which occurred 780,000 years ago. This rapid climate variability is apparently related to fluctuations in the thermohalin (large scale circulation of water, which helps to redistribute temperature around the globe). The issue of why this phenomemon appears at the beginning of the ice ages remains to be explained.
© Université de Berne and LGGE
Evolution of the most important greenhouse gases in the atmosphere after water vapor: carbon dioxide (blue curve) and methane (green curve), over the last 800,000 years. The reconstruction of Antarctic temperatures (red curve) comes from measurements of isotopes in the water from the ice cores. The data forCO2 come from several ice cores (Vostok, Taylor Dome, EPICA Dôme C). Methane data are entirely from EPICA Dome C cores.
© CNRS Photothèque / AUGUSTIN Laurent (These photos are available from the CNRS photo library, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ice core drilled at Dome C for EPICA
1) Coordinated by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the European
Union, EPICA, or "European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica", is
supported financially by the EU and the 10 countries participating in the
drilling (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Norway, Sweden,
Switzerland and the UK). French researchers are supported by the Agence
nationale de la recherche (ANR), the Institut national des sciences de
l'univers (INSU-CNRS) and CEA. Field logistics at Dom C are organized by
Institut polaire français Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV), together with the National
Italian Program for Antarctic research. EPICA was awarded the Prix Descartes
for research in March 2008.
2) Laboratoire de glaciologie et géophysique de l'environnement, CNRS / Université Joseph Fourier
3) Laboratoire des sciences du climat et de l'environnement, CNRS / CEA / Université Versailles Saint Quentin
4) Institut de Physique and Centre Oeschger sur la recherche climatique of Université de Berne (Switzerland), among others.
5) This means that for every million air molecules, 380 are CO2molecules. ppmv = part per million in volume.
6) This means that for every billion air molecules, 1800 are CH4 molecules. ppbv = part per billion in volume.
7) Precession refers to a change in the direction of the axis of rotating objects, or, more generally, of a vector under the effect of its environment. In the case of the earth, the axis of the poles « precesses » because of gravitational interaction with the sun.
High-resolution carbon dioxide concentration record 650,000-800,000 years
before present. Lüthi, D., M. Le Floch, B. Bereiter, T. Blunier, J.-M. Barnola,
U. Siegenthaler, D. Raynaud, J. Jouzel, H. Fischer, K. Kawamura, and T.F.
Stocker. Nature. 15 May 2008.
Orbital and millennial-scale features of atmospheric CH4 over the last 800,000 years. Loulergue, L., A. Schilt, R. Spahni, V. Masson-Delmotte, T. Blunier, B. Lemieux, J.-M. Barnola, D. Raynaud, T.F. Stocker, and J. Chappellaz. Nature. 15 May 2008.
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