Arc-continent collisions in the tropics set Earth’s climate state

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Science  12 Apr 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6436, pp. 181-184
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5300

Controlling cooling

On million-year time scales, Earth's climate state is determined by sources and sinks of carbon to the ocean-atmosphere system. But which specific mechanisms are important in controlling the timing of glacial intervals? Macdonald et al. identify arc-continent collisions in the tropics as a primary control (see the Perspective by Hartmann). They compiled a database of Phanerozoic arc-continent collisions and the latitudinal distribution of ice sheets, showing that ice coverage was greatest when those collisions were most widespread, maximizing global weatherability.

Science, this issue p. 181; see also p. 126


On multimillion-year time scales, Earth has experienced warm ice-free and cold glacial climates, but it is unknown whether transitions between these background climate states were the result of changes in carbon dioxide sources or sinks. Low-latitude arc-continent collisions are hypothesized to drive cooling by exhuming and eroding mafic and ultramafic rocks in the warm, wet tropics, thereby increasing Earth’s potential to sequester carbon through chemical weathering. To better constrain global weatherability through time, the paleogeographic position of all major Phanerozoic arc-continent collisions was reconstructed and compared to the latitudinal distribution of ice sheets. This analysis reveals a strong correlation between the extent of glaciation and arc-continent collisions in the tropics. Earth’s climate state is set primarily by global weatherability, which changes with the latitudinal distribution of arc-continent collisions.

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