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Journal Article

Formation of most of our coal brought Earth close to global glaciation


Feulner,  Georg
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

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Feulner, G. (2017): Formation of most of our coal brought Earth close to global glaciation. - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 114, 43, 11333-11337.

Cite as: https://publications.pik-potsdam.de/pubman/item/item_21850
The bulk of Earth’s coal deposits used as fossil fuel today was formed from plant debris during the late Carboniferous and early Permian periods. The high burial rate of organic carbon correlates with a significant drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) at that time. A recent analysis of a high-resolution record reveals large orbitally driven variations in atmospheric CO2 concentration between ∼150 and 700 ppm for the latest Carboniferous and very low values of 100 ± 80 ppm for the earliest Permian. Here, I explore the sensitivity of the climate around the Carboniferous/Permian boundary to changes in Earth’s orbital parameters and in atmospheric CO2 using a coupled climate model. The coldest orbital configurations are characterized by large axial tilt and small eccentricities of Earth’s elliptical orbit, whereas the warmest configuration occurs at minimum tilt, maximum eccentricity, and a perihelion passage during Northern hemisphere spring. Global glaciation occurs at CO2 concentrations <40 ppm, suggesting a rather narrow escape from a fully glaciated Snowball Earth state given the low levels and large fluctuations of atmospheric CO2. These findings highlight the importance of orbital cycles for the climate and carbon cycle during the late Paleozoic ice age and the climatic significance of the fossil carbon stored in Earth’s coal deposits.