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Abstract

Throughout Earth's history, CO is thought to have exerted a fundamental control on environmental change. Here we review and revise CO reconstructions from boron isotopes in carbonates and carbon isotopes in organic matter over the Cenozoic—the past 66 million years. We find close coupling between CO and climate throughout the Cenozoic, with peak CO levels of ∼1,500 ppm in the Eocene greenhouse, decreasing to ∼500 ppm in the Miocene, and falling further into the ice age world of the Plio–Pleistocene. Around two-thirds of Cenozoic CO drawdown is explained by an increase in the ratio of ocean alkalinity to dissolved inorganic carbon, likely linked to a change in the balance of weathering to outgassing, with the remaining one-third due to changing ocean temperature and major ion composition. Earth system climate sensitivity is explored and may vary between different time intervals. The Cenozoic CO record highlights the truly geological scale of anthropogenic CO change: Current CO levels were last seen around 3 million years ago, and major cuts in emissions are required to prevent a return to the CO levels of the Miocene or Eocene in the coming century.

  • ▪   CO reconstructions over the past 66 Myr from boron isotopes and alkenones are reviewed and re-evaluated.
  • ▪   CO estimates from the different proxies show close agreement, yielding a consistent picture of the evolution of the ocean-atmosphere CO system over the Cenozoic.
  • ▪   CO and climate are coupled throughout the past 66 Myr, providing broad constraints on Earth system climate sensitivity.
  • ▪   Twenty-first-century carbon emissions have the potential to return CO to levels not seen since the much warmer climates of Earth's distant past.

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2021-05-30
2024-06-18
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