Do Plants Prevent Atmospheric CO2 Levels from Falling Too Far?

by Emil Morhardt

A recent paper discussed in the previous post (Galbraith and Eggleston, 2017) claims that during the past 800,000 years when the Earth has been in a glacial condition with the occasional interglacial period (such as now), there is a strong correlation between global temperature and atmospheric CO2 levels, and that they tend to go to the same low point again and again and stay there. These authors argue that if CO2 were to go lower, so would the temperature, and that therefore something is keeping the CO2 level from going any lower then 190 ppm. One intriguing possibility they bring up comes from a paper (Pagani et al., 2009) by Mark Pagani at Yale, and his colleagues at the Carnegie Institution in Stanford and at the University of Sheffield who claim that plants stop effective photosynthesis if CO2 levels fall below 190 ppm, depriving the carbon cycle of two sources of removal of atmospheric CO2; photosynthesis, and a more subtle plant activity called biologically enhanced silicate chemical weathering. The mechanisms of these two processes are interesting. Continue reading

How Low Does CO2 Go?

by Emil Morhardt

Atmospheric CO2 levels are always lower during glacial periods than during interglacials like the one we are in now. During the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago, for example, they were at 190 parts per million (ppm), whereas during the most recent 10,000 years, almost up to the present, they have been about 280 ppm. [We have now succeeded in raising them to over 400 ppm and still counting, but that’s a different story.] Eric Galbraith and S. Eggleston (Galbraith and Eggleston, 2017) argue that as far as we know, atmospheric CO2 levels have never gone below the typical glacial levels of 190 ppm, even in extended snowball earth conditions. Why not? Well, a carefully-reasoned 2009 paper they cite (Pagani et al., 2009) suggests that even in the mostly warm conditions of the last 24 million years, when CO2 levels fell below 190 ppm, terrestrial plants stopped effectively photosynthesizing, thus they not only stopped removing CO2 from the atmosphere directly, but they also stopped the active root growth which increases the acidity of soils and enhances chemical silicate weathering from the rocks which removes CO2 from the soil, and ultimately from the atmosphere. Galbraith and Eggleston argue that the same thing has been happening during the glacial periods of the last 800,000 years, and extend the argument to the photosynthesis of oceanic phytoplankton. To wit, when CO2 levels get below 190 ppm, CO2 removal from the atmosphere by photosynthesis and chemical weathering is sharply reduced, so they decline no further. Continue reading