Ice ages may be caused by mountains rising in the tropics

Preface.  In case you’d forgotten– given all the talk about climate change — we’re still in an ice age that’s been going on for 2.6 million years.  Lucky for us, we’ve been in one of the few warm periods for the past 12,000 years.

Scientists have been debating what triggers ice ages for many decades.  The most popular theory is that an ice age is caused by the Milankovitch cycles, in which predictable changes in the Earth’s tilt and orbit combine to affect which areas on Earth get more or less solar radiation.  Based on previous cycles, we are due for an ice age now, and perhaps were even heading that direction the past 6,000 years, since summers have been getting colder for that long.

But once we started burning fossil fuels, we emitted enough greenhouse gases to stave off the next ice age for a while.  But not forever, especially since fossil fuels are on the cusp of depleting (we’re at or near both peak oil and peak coal production globally).  And once they do start to decline, we’ll emit less CO2, and the oceans and land will eventually absorb most of it within centuries, setting the stage for the return of an ice age.

This is a new theory that may or may not be true, but since it was published in the world’s top scientific magazine, Science, it deserves attention.

“A hothouse Earth appears to be the planet’s default state, prevailing for three-fourths of the past 500 million years. An Indonesia-style collision (lifting mountain ranges up) may push the global climate into a glacial period, but only for a while. Mountains erode and continents drift. And the planet warms again.”

And if a hothouse earth ever returns, it won’t be from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, they’ll be long gone. Thank goodness we didn’t burn them during the usual hothouse default state, when even more damage might have been done.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Voosen, P. 2019. Tropical uplift may set Earth’s thermostat. Science 363: 13.

Hate the cold? Blame Indonesia. It may sound odd, given the contributions to global warming from the country’s 270 million people, rampant deforestation, and frequent carbon dioxide (CO2)-belching volcanic eruptions. But over much longer times, Indonesia is sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Many mountains in Indonesia and neighboring Papua New Guinea consist of ancient volcanic rocks from the ocean floor that were caught in a colossal tectonic collision between a chain of island volcanoes and a continent, and thrust high. Lashed by tropical rains, these rocks hungrily react with CO2 and sequester it in minerals. That is why, with only 2% of the world’s land area, Indonesia accounts for 10% of its long-term CO2 absorption. Its mountains could explain why ice sheets have persisted, waxing and waning, for several million years (although they are now threatened by global warming).

Now, researchers have extended that theory, finding that such tropical mountain-building collisions coincide with nearly all of the half-dozen or so significant glacial periods in the past 500 million years. “These types of environments, through time, are what sets the global climate,” said Francis Macdonald, a geologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, when he presented the work last month at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. If Earth’s climate has a master switch, he suggests, the rise of mountains like Indonesia’s could be it.

Most geologists agree that long-term changes in the planet’s temperature are governed by shifts in CO2, and that plate tectonics somehow drives those shifts as it remakes the planet’s surface. But for several decades, researchers have debated exactly what turns the CO2 knob. Many have focused on the volcanoes that rise where plates dive beneath one another. By spewing carbon from Earth’s interior, they could turn up the thermostat. Others have emphasized rock weathering, which depends on mountain building driven by plate tectonics. When the mountains contain seafloor rocks rich in calcium and magnesium, they react with CO2 dissolved in rainwater to form limestone, which is eventually buried on the ocean floor. Both processes matter; “the issue is which one is changing the most,” says Cin-Ty Lee, a volcanologist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Having the right rocks to drive the CO2-chewing reaction is not sufficient. Climate matters, too. The Siberian Traps, a region that saw devastating volcanic eruptions 252 million years ago, are rich in such rocks but absorb little, says Dennis Kent, a geologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It’s too damn cold,” he says.

Saudi Arabia has the heat and the rocks but lacks another ingredient. “It’s hotter than Hades but it doesn’t rain.” Indonesia’s location in the rainy tropics is just right. “That is probably what’s keeping us centered in an ice age,” Kent adds.

Macdonald and his collaborators have found other times when tectonics and climate conspired to open an Indonesia-size CO2 drain. They found that glacial conditions 90 million and 50 million years ago lined up neatly with the collisions of a chain of island volcanoes in the now-vanished Neo-Tethys Ocean with the African and Asian continents. A similar collision some 460 million years ago formed the Appalachians, but it was thought to have taken place in the subtropics, where a drier climate does not favor weathering. By reanalyzing ancient magnetic fields in rocks formed in the collision, Macdonald’s team found the mountains actually rose deep in the tropics. And their uplift matched a 2-million-year-long glaciation. “They’re developing a pretty compelling story that this was a climate driver in Earth’s past,” says Lee Kump, a paleoclimatologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

But those cases could be exceptions. So the team compiled a database of every tectonic “suture”—the linear features left by tectonic collisions—known to contain ophiolites, those bits of volcanic sea floor, over the past half-billion years. Based on magnetism in each suture’s rocks and a model of continental drift, they mapped their ancient latitudes to see which formed in the topics, and when.  

The team compared the results to records of past glaciations and found a strong correlation. They also looked for declines in volcanism, which might have cooled the climate. But their influence was much weaker, Macdonald said.

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