Freshman Seminar:
Introduction to the Science of Climate Change
Prof. Jordi Miralda-Escudé, F 9:30

Lecture 6: Earlier history of the Earth climate.

The Earth climate millions of years ago.

In Lecture 5 we saw that over the last several hundreds of thousands of years, the Earth climate has experienced many ice ages with much colder conditions than today, and interglacial periods in between with similar climate as today. At much earlier times, ice ages did not occur and Earth was generally much warmer.

Evidence for a warm Earth many millions of years ago:

Models of climate at this epoch explain this warmer world better if the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was as high as 10 times the present value (2000 or 3000 ppmv).

Why was carbon dioxide higher many millions of years ago?

We have seen in the last lecture that the reduction of carbon dioxide over the short timescale of an ice age is probably explained by an exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and ocean.
However, the much larger change of carbon dioxide over the last 100 million years needs to be explained as a change in the total reservoir of carbon in the ocean, which is large compared to the atmosphere and soil reservoirs.

Over long timescales, the carbon reservoir in the atmosphere-ocean-soil is changed by input of carbon from volcanoes and other outgassing from the mantle, and output of carbon by burial of sea-floor sediments containing carbonate rocks, and eventual subduction of these ocean sediments into the mantle.

This means there are two reasons why carbon dioxide could have been higher in the past:

The reason why carbon dioxide has been gradually declining over the last 50 million years is not yet quite clear, but both these factors (decreasing emissions from volcanoes and increasing rates of chemical weathering) were important.

The processes of volcanism and chemical weathering can change the total carbon in the ocean and atmosphere only over millions of years. They are far too slow to affect the anthropogenic carbon dioxide increase at present, which is being mitigated only by absorption of carbon dioxide into the ocean as the ocean comes to equilibrium with a higher carbon dioxide abundance in the atmosphere, over a timescale of centuries.

The climate in the primitive Earth

The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. During this time, the Sun has been gradually increasing its luminosity as a result of the normal evolution of a star. According to astrophysical theory, a normal star will slowly increase its luminosity as it consumes more of its hydrogen to make helium in its core by nuclear fusion reactions which generate the energy of the star. At a time of 4 billion years ago, the luminosity of the Sun was only 70% of the present one. This suggests that the Earth should have been much colder.

In fact, climate models show that with such a faint Sun, the Earth should have been completely frozen (meaning covered by a thick layer of ice even in the equator) during its first 3 billion years of history, if the greenhouse effect were similar to the present one.

The reason the Earth was not frozen in its early history is believed to be a much greater greenhouse effect from a very high carbon dioxide concentration (nearly all the atmosphere might have been carbon dioxide in the primitive Earth). This may have been due to a higher rate of volcanism and lower rates of chemical weathering in the primitive Earth.

The Gaia hypothesis for the evolution of the Earth postulates that the presence of life has provided mechanisms to regulate the climate, among them regulating the rate at which chemical weathering occurs, so that the Earth does not get too hot or too cold to maintain life. This hypothesis has generated a lot of debate among scientists and the public.

Why is Venus so hot today?

The planet Venus has a temperature on its surface of 460 degrees Celsius, or about 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Venus is closer to the Sun than Earth, so you would think that would make it hotter. However, Venus also has a higher albedo than Earth, meaning that it reflects a lot more of the sunlight. Because of this higher albedo, Venus should actually be cooler than Earth if it had the same greenhouse effect. The reason Venus is so hot is because of its very large greenhouse effect.

Almost all the atmosphere of Venus is carbon dioxide (96% of it). In addition, the total mass of Venus atmosphere is 100 times the mass of the atmosphere of Earth. At the surface of Venus, the pressure is 100 times the pressure at the Earth surface.

The reason there is so much carbon dioxide in Venus' atmosphere is because that is where all the carbon in Venus is. Venus has no ocean, and no chemical weathering, and no subduction of carbonates into its mantle. Over its history, all the carbon in Venus's interior has been emitted by volcanoes and has stayed in the atmosphere.

Earth and Venus actually have about the same amount of carbon, but they have it in different places. If one could take all the carbonate rocks in Earth's interior, vaporize them and emit all the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, then Earth would become like Venus. We are lucky that over many millions of years, carbon dioxide has been constantly removed by dissolving in rainwater, combining with minerals in rocks, running through rivers to the ocean, sedimenting in the sea-floor, and then being subducted to the mantle!


  • The Earth climate 50 million years ago was much warmer, with no permanent ice. A greater greenhouse effect resulted from more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and ocean can vary over millions of years due to change in volcanism and change in the rate of removal by chemical weathering.
  • The primitive Earth had a very high greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide, which compensated for a fainter Sun to keep the Earth warm.
  • The planet Venus has not been able to bury its carbon like the Earth, and as a result all its carbon is in the atmosphere today, producing and enormous greenhouse effect and high temperature on the surface.