Long-term legacy of massive carbon input to the Earth system: Anthropocene versus Eocene

Over the next few centuries, with unabated emissions of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2), a total of 5000 Pg C may enter the atmosphere, causing CO2 concentrations to rise to approximately 2000 ppmv, global temperature to warm by more than 8°C and surface ocean pH to decline by approximately 0.7 units. A carbon release of this magnitude is unprecedented during the past 56 million years—and the outcome accordingly difficult to predict. In this regard, the geological record may provide foresight to how the Earth system will respond in the future. Here, we discuss the long-term legacy of massive carbon release into the Earth’s surface reservoirs, comparing the Anthropocene with a past analogue, the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, approx. 56 Ma). We examine the natural processes and time scales of CO2 neutralization that determine the atmospheric lifetime of CO2 in response to carbon release. We compare the duration of carbon release during the Anthropocene versus PETM and the ensuing effects on ocean acidification and marine calcifying organisms. We also discuss the conundrum that the observed duration of the PETM appears to be much longer than predicted by models that use first-order assumptions. Finally, we comment on past and future mass extinctions and recovery times of biotic diversity.

Zeebe R. E. & Zachos J. C., 2013. Long-term legacy of massive carbon input to the Earth system: Anthropocene versus Eocene. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 371(2001): 20120006. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2012.0006. Article (subscription required).

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