Tectonics and glacial epochs

Because the configuration of continents inevitably affects the ocean currents that dominate the distribution of heat across the face of the Earth, tectonics has a major influence over climate. So too does the topography of continents, which deflects global wind patterns, and that is also a reflection of tectonic events. For instance, a gap between North and South America allowed exchange of the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans throughout the Cenozoic Era until about 3 Ma ago, at the end of the Pliocene Epoch, although the seaway had long been shallowing as a result of tectonics and volcanism at the destructive margin of the eastern Pacific. That seemingly minor closure transformed the system of currents in the Atlantic Ocean, particularly the Gulf Stream, whose waxing and waning were instrumental in the glacial-interglacial cycles that have persisted for the last 2.5 Ma. This was partly through its northward transport of saltier water formed by tropical evaporation that cooling at high northern latitudes encouraged to sink to form a major component of the global oceanic heat conveyor system.   Another example is the rise of the Himalaya following India’s collision with Eurasia that gave rise to the monsoonal system  dominating the climate of southern Asia. The four huge climatic shifts to all-pervasive ice-house conditions during the Phanerozoic Eon are not explained so simply: one during the late-Ordovician; another in the late-Devonian; a 150 Ma-long glacial epoch spanning much of the Carboniferous and Permian Periods, and the current Ice Age that has lasted since around 34 Ma. Despite having been at the South Pole since the Cretaceous Antarctica didn’t develop glaciers until 34 Ma. So what may have triggered these four major shifts in global climate?

Five palaeoclimatologists from the University of California and MIT set out to find links, starting with the most basic parameter, how atmospheric greenhouse gases might have varied. In the long term CO2 builds up through its emission by volcanoes. It is drawn down by several geological processes: burial of carbon and carbonates formed by living processes; chemical weathering of silicate minerals by CO2 dissolved in water, which forms solid calcium carbonate in soil and carbonate ions in seawater that can be taken up and buried by shell-producing organisms. Rather than comparing gross climate change with periods of orogeny and mountain building, mainly due to continent-continent collisions, they focused on zones that preserve signs of subduction of oceanic lithosphere – suture zones (Macdonald,F.A. et al. 2019. Arc-continent collisions in the tropics set Earth’s climate state. Science, v. 363 (in press); DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5300 ). Comparing the length of all sutures active at different times in the Phanerozoic with the extent of continental ice sheets there is some correlation between active subduction and glaciations, but some major misfits. Selecting only sutures that were active in the tropics of the time – the zone of most intense chemical weathering – results in a far better tectonic-climate connection. Their explanation for this is not tropical weathering of all kinds of exposed rock but of calcium- and magnesium-rich igneous rocks; basaltic and ultramafic rocks. These dominate oceanic lithosphere, which is exposed to weathering mainly where slabs of lithosphere are forced, or obducted, onto continental crust at convergent plate margins to form ophiolite complexes. The Ca- and Mg-rich silicates in them weather quickly to take up CO2 and form carbonates, especially in the tropics. Through such weathering reactions across millions of square kilometres the main greenhouse gas is rapidly pulled out of the atmosphere to set off global cooling.


Top – variation in the total length of active, ophiolite-bearing sutures during the Phanerozoic; middle – length of such sutures in the tropics; bottom – extent of Phanerozoic glaciers. (Credit: Macdonald et al. 2019; Fig.2

Rather than the climatic influence of tectonics through global mountain building, the previous paradigm, Macdonald and colleagues show that the main factor is where subduction and ophiolite obduction were taking place. In turn, this very much depended on the configuration of continents on which ophiolites can be preserved. The most active period of tectonics during the Mesozoic, as recorded by the global length of sutures, was at 250 Ma – the beginning of the Triassic Period – but they were mainly outside the tropics, when there is no sign of contemporary glaciation. During the Ordovician, late-Devonian and Permo-Carboniferous ice-houses active sutures were most concentrated in the tropics. The same goes for the build-up to the current glacial epoch.

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