Elements Covers

October 2019 - Volume 15, Number 5

 

Combined logo list of the society members that make up elements magazine.
Credit: Deep Carbon
Observatory/Alamy

Catastrophic Perturbations to Earth's Deep Carbon Cycle

Celina A. Suarez, Marie Edmonds, and Adrian P. Jones Guest Editors

Table of Contents

Overview

Carbon is one of the most important elements on Earth. It is the basis of all life on the planet, is stored and mobilized throughout the Earth from core to crust, and is the basis of the energy sources that are so important to human civilization. This issue will explore the origins of carbon on Earth; the long-term carbon cycle; catastrophic and large-scale perturbations to Earth’s carbon cycle such as large igneous provinces and bolide impacts; carbon’s role in mass extinctions; and icehouse–greenhouse climate transitions in deep time. Deciphering the complex, and often faint, signals of distant carbon catastrophes requires a multidisciplinary effort and the most innovative analytical technology. This thematic collection comes at an important time in which carbon fluxes on Earth are changing rapidly. Society must understand the way in which the deep carbon cycle on Earth works to secure a sustainable future.

  • Earth Catastrophes and their Impact on the Carbon Cycle
  • On the Origin(s) and Evolution of Earth’s Carbon
  • The Influence of Large Bolide Impacts on Earth’s Carbon Cycle
  • Deep Carbon and the Life Cycle of Large Igneous Provinces
  • Earth’s Outgassing and Climatic Transitions: The Slow Burn Towards Environmental “Catastrophes”?
  • Interpreting the Carbon Isotope Record of Mass Extinctions
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2019 Topics

Thematic Articles

Earth Catastrophes and Their Impact on the Carbon Cycle

By , and

Carbon is one of the most important elements on Earth. It is the basis of life, it is stored and mobilized throughout the Earth from core to crust and it is the basis of the energy sources that are vital to human civilization. This issue will focus on the origins of carbon on Earth, the roles played by large-scale catastrophic carbon perturbations in mass extinctions, the movement and distribution of carbon in large igneous provinces, and the role carbon plays in icehouse–greenhouse climate transitions in deep time. Present-day carbon fluxes on Earth are changing rapidly, and it is of utmost importance that scientists understand Earth’s carbon cycle to secure a sustainable future.

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On the Origin(s) and Evolution of Earth’s Carbon

By and

The isotopic “flavor” of Earth’s major volatiles, including carbon, can be compared to the known reservoirs of volatiles in the solar system and so determine the source of Earth’s carbon. This requires knowing Earth’s bulk carbon isotope value, which is not straightforward to determine. During Earth’s differentiation, carbon was partitioned into the core, mantle, crust, and atmosphere. Therefore, although carbon is omnipresent within the Earth system, scientists have yet to determine its distribution and relative abundances. This article addresses what we know of the processes involved in the formation of Earth’s carbon reservoirs, and, by deduction, what we know about the possible origins of Earth’s carbon.

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The Influence of Large Bolide Impacts on Earth’s Carbon Cycle

By and

Human society’s rapid release of vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere is a significant planetary experiment. An obvious natural process capable of similar emissions over geologically short time spans are very large bolide impacts. When striking a carbon-rich target, bolides significantly, and potentially catastrophically, disrupt the global biogeochemical carbon cycle. Independent factors, such as sulfur-rich targets, redox state of the oceans or encountering ecosystems already close to a tipping point, dictated the magnitude of further consequences and determined which large bolide strikes shaped Earth’s evolution. On the early Earth, where carbon-rich sedimentary targets were rare, impacts may not have been purely destructive. Instead, enclosed subaqueous impact structures may have contributed to initiating Earth’s unique carbon cycle.

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Deep Carbon and the Life Cycle of Large Igneous Provinces

By and

Carbon is central to the formation and environmental impact of large igneous provinces (LIPs). These vast magmatic events occur over geologically short timescales and include voluminous flood basalts, along with silicic and low-volume alkaline magmas. Surface outgassing of CO2 from flood basalts may average up to 3,000 Mt per year during LIP emplacement and is subsidized by fractionating magmas deep in the crust. The large quantities of carbon mobilized in LIPs may be sourced from the convecting mantle, lithospheric mantle and crust. The relative significance of each potential carbon source is poorly known and probably varies between LIPs. Because LIPs draw on mantle reservoirs typically untapped during plate boundary magmatism, they are integral to Earth’s long-term carbon cycle.

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Earth’s Outgassing and Climatic Transitions: The Slow Burn Towards Environmental “Catastrophes”?

By and

On multimillion-year timescales, outgassing from the Earth’s interior provides the principal source of CO2 to the ocean–atmosphere system, which plays a fundamental role in shaping the Earth’s baseline climate. Fluctuations in global outgassing have been linked to icehouse–greenhouse transitions, although uncertainties surround paleo-outgassing fluxes. Here, we discuss how volcanic outgassing and the carbon cycle have evolved in concert with changes in plate tectonics and biotic evolution. We describe hypotheses of driving mechanisms for the Paleozoic icehouse–greenhouse climates and explore how climatic transitions may have influenced past biotic crises and, in particular, how variable outgassing rates established the backdrop for carbon cycle perturbations to instigate prominent mass extinction events.

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Interpreting the Carbon Isotope Record of Mass Extinctions

By , and

Mass extinctions are global-scale environmental crises marked by the loss of numerous species from all habitats. They often coincide with rapid changes in the stable carbon isotope ratios (13C/12C) recorded in sedimentary carbonate and organic matter, ratios which can indicate substantial inputs to the surface carbon reservoirs and/or changes in the cycling of carbon. Models to explain these changes have provided much fuel for debate on the causes and consequences of mass extinctions. For example, the escape of methane from gas hydrate deposits or the emission of huge volumes of gaseous carbon from large-scale volcanic systems, known as large igneous provinces, may have been responsible for decreases of 13C/12C in sedimentary deposits. In this article, we discuss the challenges in distinguishing between these, and other, alternatives.

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