Coal Almost Turned Earth into a Giant Ball of Ice

By Lauren Sigfusson | October 10, 2017 7:42 am

(Credit: Shuttershock)

Coal, it’s the sooty fossil fuel that’s heated our homes and generated electricity for centuries, but millions of years ago its formation could’ve frozen the planet.

Coal deposits formed from dead trees and plants roughly 300 million years ago during the late Carboniferous and early Permian periods. During that timeframe, Earth was largely a hot, sticky planet covered in swampy jungles. Levels of CO2 reached 1,000 ppm, which is more than twice the levels they are today. But as the climate changed, and the trees died, rotted and turned to coal, CO2 levels started dropping. Coal sucked Earth’s levels of that gas to staggeringly low levels, pushing Earth to the verge of freezing.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the US Academy of Sciences that examined Carboniferous and early Permian climates. We are now burning and releasing that very reserve of CO2, which has global CO2 trending back to their ancient highs.

Georg Feulner, a researcher from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, conducted computer simulations in order to estimate levels of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere millions of years ago. He estimates that, at one point, atmospheric CO2  concentrations reached only 100 parts per million (ppm) — maybe even lower. The entire globe would freeze over at 35 ppm.

Though, the study shows that CO2 levels weren’t the only culprits contributing to our planet’s low temperature at the time; Earth’s tilt and position to the sun also affected global climtae.

Key Takeaways

Aside from coal almost turning Earth into a big ol’ ball of ice, this study highlights the important role fluctuations in CO2 play on a global scale.

“The amount of COstored in Earth’s coal reserves was once big enough to push our climate out of balance,” Feulner said in a news release. “When released by burning the coal, the CO2 is again destabilizing the Earth system.”

In April, Discover reported that CO2 levels reached 410 ppm, which shows an increase of 3 ppm per year. Researchers have warned that CO2 levels hitting 400 ppm is worrisome, while Feulner seems to think 450 ppm is a point we shouldn’t reach.

“We should definitely keep CO2 levels in the atmosphere below 450 ppm to keep our climate stable, and ideally much lower than that. Raising the amount of greenhouse gases beyond that limit means pushing ourselves out of the safe operating space of Earth,” Feulner said in a news release. “Earth’s past teaches us that periods of rapid warming were often associated with mass extinction events. This shows that a stable climate is something to appreciate and protect.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    Earth was largely a hot, sticky planet covered in swampy jungles.” The Carboniferous period antedated wood rot fungi. Recycle! What CO2 source fueled 1000 ppm atmospheric when the whole planet was furiously fixing carbon to cellulose?

    Vacuum CO2 from the atmosphere, raise ocean pH, feed the world, remove two purely huge industrial waste problems, and make a profit doing it.

    Bayer process bauxite to pure alumina produces 77 million tons/year of “red mud,” micronized iron oxide in pH 13 water. North Carolina produces 40 million gallons/day of liquid hog waste. Erect wind power generators and spray towers along Macquarie Island’s southeast coast.
    The Furious 50s and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (26 – 40 billion gallons/second) will blow and row sustainable 10 billion gallons/year each of red mud and liquid hog manure east. Supply the micronutrients fulcrum. The photosynthesis lever creates itself.

    Phytoplankton, zooplankton (copepods being dominant), krill, then fish will gorge. Feed the world. Sequester carbon big time as oceanic feces sink and pelagic to demersal zone copepod metabolism. Ocean pH rises. Two huge waste lagoon storage issues vanish. Enviro-whiners starve.

    • Kurt S

      Uncle Al, why do you even read Discover. I have yet to see you agree with any article that is posted. There is nothing wrong with skepticism, but in your case it always borders on denial.

      • Erik Bosma

        Uncle Al is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle covered with a riddle. Or however that Churchillian quote went. One quite never really knows if he’s being sarcastic or sceptical or alt-right or alt-left or objective or subjective or whatever. A message doesn’t need a direction… neither does a messenger.

        • Uncle Al

          I seek to be empirical. As to social intent and its seraglios, it is management’s task to displace discrete facts with overall ignorance.

          …Remove parens. one line. 300 climate graphs.

      • Uncle Al

        First reply was censored.

        Some Discover writers do not invest an hour to do their literature search.

        Enviro-pocalypse? Dump a red mud waste lagoon into the Southern Ocean for nanomolar iron fertilization. A whole hot wet planet violently photosynthesized for 300 million years, affording two teratonnes of coal. Atmospheric CO2 sustained 1000 ppm? A concomitant CO2 source must be named and evidenced. What consumed excreted oxygen?


        • Really_quite_old_and_whipped

          “Some Discover writers do not invest an hour to do their literature search.”

          Why should they? We have you.

  • Melvin

    Not just some number of hundreds of Ma. Take the 30 M from 40 to 70 Ma, where the proxies have atmospheric parts-per at ~1000 as well, coal or no coal, but certainly without any appreciable number of humans. Yet and still, trying to fit a few decades of direct measurements, or a couple centuries of that and near-term proxies, into millions of years of data? It’s difficult to claim with any certainty that the last n decades or x centuries moving from 200 to 450 is anywhere near having “global CO2 trending back to their ancient highs”. Fifty years isn’t much of a comparison to millions of them, regardless of which proxy or which substance or which extrapolation. Especially when all of it is in the same ice age we’ve been in for the last two and a half million years.

    If we change the topic and start talking about a stable climate, it’s not necessarily looking all that unstable. Depending upon what you’re looking at and keeping the timeframes in mind of course. Perhaps this might give us hope for the future then.

    • Erik Bosma

      We can only respond to the facts that confront us at the present. Hopefully, we don’t over or under react. We don’t even know how far the precession of the equinoxes can go beyond what we assume nowadays nor do we know how elliptical or how circular our revolution around the sun can change over deep time. One day at a time.

      • cardigan

        What are the “facts” that confront us at the moment. There are lots of claims but very few facts, especially when it comes to temperature records.

        • Walter Goddard

          When they allowed people to digitize the old records, the old temperature related records were destroyed and/or altered…

          This past winter I heard a broadcast from the Global Warming camp, that asked people in Europe to volunteer to digitize the weather related records, like they did in North America..

          All these so called facts and figures they use to prophecy doom and gloom about the climate change are lies to begin with, because they’re using the lies they created to justify their own conclusions!

          The only part of the digital records for 1982 and 1983 that is still mostly true, is the part they didn’t think anyone would forget.. That’s the coldest Christmas on record!

          The winter of 82 and 83 was one of the coldest ever recorded.

          I lived in Kalkaska, Michigan and worked in the old field… The morning of January 19,1983, it was -56F and the windchill was officially reported as -110F ..

          It is the morning my oldest daughter was born, so I absolutely know what the temp was that day.. and most of the winter I nearly froze to death in the oil field.. on a deep test well in Falmouth, Michigan.

          The whole month of February 1983, the high temperature for the day never got above -30F…

          When all of this so called Global Warming started, I researched some online sources for the old weather records I personally experienced, and guess what? They were all changed, lost in the digital shuffle :(

          Let’s all have a look at the historical reports and testimonies from people who lost body parts to frostbite, city water mains freezing/breaking and emergency heating credits handed out like candy to the poor… During the winter of 1982 and 1983!

          How many other years of temperature data did the climate change camp alter and destroy?

      • jonathanpulliam

        Oh no, censor-in-chief Tom Yulsman wants to take evertyone straight to full panic “hair on fire” mode.

  • Uncle Al

    Regarding my disputation below, that atmospheric CO2 can be hugely reduced at will quickly and at essentially no net cost by iron nanofertilization of the Southern Ocean:

    Each kilogram of iron nanofertilization can fix 83,000 kg of carbon dioxide then 100,000 kilograms of plankton, DOI:10.1016/0304-4203(95)00035-P.

    Injecting 50 million tonnes/year red mud then conservatively removes 20 trillion tonnes/year of CO2 from the air. Burn all the coal you want.

    • Erik Bosma

      Wasn’t the trick with iron how nature did it the last time?

  • cardigan

    “CO2 is again destabilizing the Earth system.”

    What nonsense. There is nothing unique about current climate and the “earth system”, whatever he means by that, is just fine, except on a climate modeller’s screen.


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