Is Earth Much More Sensitive to CO2 Than Thought?

November 18, 2015


A nahcolite from the Eocene Green River Formation. Credit: Timothy Lowenstein

Ancient climates on Earth may have been more sensitive to carbon dioxide than was previously thought, according to new research from Binghamton University.

A team of Binghamton University researchers including geology PhD student Elliot A. Jagniecki and professors Tim Lowenstein, David Jenkins and Robert Demicco examined nahcolite crystals found in Colorado’s Green River Formation, formed 50 million years old during a hothouse climate. They found that CO2 levels during this time may have been as low as 680 parts per million (ppm), nearly half the 1,125 ppm predicted by previous experiments. The new data suggests that past predictions significantly underestimate the impact of greenhouse warming and that Earth’s climate may be more sensitive to increased carbon dioxide than was once thought, said Lowenstein.

“The significance of this is that CO2 50 million years ago may not have been as high as we once thought it was, but the climate back then was significantly warmer than it is today,” said Lowenstein.”

CO2 levels in the atmosphere today have reached 400 ppm. According to current projections, doubling the CO2 will result in a rise in the global average temperature of 3 degrees Centigrade. This new research suggests that the effects of CO2 on global warming may be underestimated.

“Take notice that carbon dioxide 50 million years ago may not have been as high as we once thought it was. We may reach that level in the next century, and so the climate change from that increase could be pretty severe, pretty dramatic. CO2 and other climate forcings may be more important for global warming than we realized.”

Binghamton University:

The only direct measurement of carbon dioxide is from ice cores, which only go back less than 1 million years. Lowenstein and his team are trying to develop ways to estimate ancient carbon dioxide in the atmosphere using indirect proxies. He said that their approach is different than any ever undertaken.

“These are direct chemical measurements that are based on equilibrium thermodynamics,” he said. “These are direct laboratory experiments, so I think they’re really reliable.

Lowenstein wants to look at nahcolite deposits in China to confirm the results found in Colorado.



19 Responses to “Is Earth Much More Sensitive to CO2 Than Thought?”

  1. pendantry Says:

    Oh, [expletive deleted]!

  2. It will need to be confirmed by other studies, but this certainly doesn’t bode well.

  3. earlosatrun Says:

    It could be worse…

    Their results could have shown that the Earth cooks at 405 PPM.

    So, we’re expected to hit 650 ppm in the 2050s, eh? Unless the graph turns from a hockey stick to a square.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Who expects us to “hit 650 ppm in the 2050’s”? Is that figure PFTA and meant to be a joke? And what kind of a graph is a “square”? This is a very serious finding about ancient sodium bicarbonate, and spouting inanities in an attempt to be a jokester is not appropriate. (Unless it’s your defense-denial mechanism, and you’re “whistling past the graveyard”, in which case, you need to whistle louder).

      • earlosatrun Says:

        I used one of the IPCC graphs on the projections of CO2 if the emmissions continue as they are. My eyes might be bad, but if you use the worst case scenario in the one I looked at, it looked like the concentration passes 650 ppm by about 2050.

        When does a hockey stick become a square? 🙂 When you replace your hockey stick with a square. A square is a piece of metal or wood used in construction to make sure you’ve measured a 90 degree angle. I’ll try to avoid obscure puns in the future.

        The thing I thought was more serious was the idea that they’re not sure how sensitive the climate is to CO2.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          The worst-case IPCC scenario projects about 580 ppm in 2050, so perhaps you DO need to get your eyes checked.

          And your comment about a “square line” is more than an “obscure pun”. There may be folks visiting Crock who understand graphic data even less than you do, and you shouldn’t confuse them with misguided attempts at humor.

          Hockey sticks are important to understanding AGW and many other unsustainable human impacts on the planet. They represent a rapid (and even exponential) change in the rate of increase, which in the case of temperature or CO2 or resource depletion is worrisome if it continues.

          A “square graph” as you imply actually has an infinite rate of increase (slope), meaning that CO2 would rise instantaneously, and we’d all be instantaneously dead. Right in mid-whistle past the graveyard.

          You are right that “….more serious was the idea that they’re not sure how sensitive the climate is to CO2”. My point also, because it means that things may be much worse than we thought, and that’s why you need to get serious and forget puns.

          • earlosatrun Says:

            I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that you were going to find the solution to the problem here, on this website. While commenting about news stories.

            I’ll leave you to your serious internet discussions.


  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    “CO2 levels in the atmosphere today have reached 400 ppm.”

    It even worse than that. After converting all the other GHG’s into CO2 equivalents, the [CO2 equivalent total] is ~ 480ppm.

    • And it’s probably enen worse than “It’s even worse than that.” In the short term, methane is a much more powerful CO2 equivalent heat-forcer than it is when calculated over a hundred-year period. Looks like you used the 100-year average of x 25 suggested by the 2007 IPCC report. Short-term effects in the scientific literature range from x 70 over a 20-year time horizon to truly terrifying initial impacts of up to to x 300, and methane release in the arctic seems to be going exponential, so the short-term multipliers are the relevant ones . . . We are approaching 2 ppm CH4. Are we conservatively at 540 CO2e already and waiting for the arctic methane burp that gets more likely every day?

    • indy222 Says:

      This is an excellent point. Can you tell me where the ~480ppm comes from? Is it ‘home brewed’ from looking at e.g the IPCC AR4 forcing graph with the N20, CFC’s, CH4….?

      • dumboldguy Says:

        You have to look at “CO2e” (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) and “GWP” (Global Warming Potential) to come up with what might be called the “total GHG load”. I haven’t looked at the IPCC forcing graph lately, but have seen in other places that the number is closer to 510 ppm CO2e at present. And I don’t think any of those figures took into account the warming due to black carbon..

  5. indy222 Says:

    This is one of the most frightening posts you have made, Peter. I’ll be including this in my teaching materials. I hope too that someone is working on merging our understandings of the “climate sensitivity” to doubling CO2 of ~6C after long term feedbacks, melds with this new method for the PETM.

  6. Reblogged this on Hypergeometric and commented:
    The story gets steadily worse.

  7. dumboldguy Says:

    Anyone who visits Crock regularly knows that we are not going to find the “solutions” here, just as they are not available anywhere else on the planet at this time.

    We ARE, however, going to be exposed via Crock to some “stories” with excellent links to the research findings that are far more than simply “news”, and also to comments from people who are knowledgeable and serious about discussing AGW. (You’re neither).

    Please DO leave us to our “serious internet discussions” by going away and taking your puerile “wit” with you—-that will add considerably to our “enjoyment” level.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Comment meant in response to earlosatrun at 12:39

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Why does this response not surprise me? (Or any other perceptive Crockers who have been “following” earlo’s maundering inane witticisms)

    • earlosatrun Says:

      Just because you’re upset that the world is going to rid itself of the humans isn’t a reason to bitch at me for posting my opinion.

      Some people react with dark humour to this, I’m one. The stories that are told here are also told elsewhere, there’s a good number of other services that do the same thing that greenman is doing.

      Serious about discussing global warming? Yah, for all the fucking good it does.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Earlo suffers from logic impairment also. Here he is with a glaring non sequitur. First, I am not upset that the world is going to “rid itself” of humans. IIWII, and we will not be the first species to disappear.

        Technically speaking, the planet won’t be removing us anyway—–we will be the first to remove ourselves from the planet through our stupidity. I hope we can head it off, but if we can’t, we asked for it.

        And, totally disconnected from the “removal” of humans thought, I am not “bitching” at earlo for posting his “opinion”, but merely pointing out that besides his “opinions” being non-contributory, his “puns” are bad, his command of AGW facts is weak, and his graphing skills need work. IIWII

        Earlo is not the only one who reacts with “dark humor” on Crock to the dilemma posed by AGW. I sometimes do it myself. Unfortunately, one needs knowledge and wit to be humorous, and earlo is deficient there also.

        And yes, there are a number of “services” that “do” what Greenman is doing, and I spend time visiting many of them. Crock is unique and special among them for reasons that earlo apparently doesn’t understand.. I will repeat part of an earlier comment and again suggest that earlo—–

        “Please DO leave us to our “serious internet discussions” by going away and taking your puerile “wit” with you—-that will add considerably to our “enjoyment” level”.

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