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Paleoclimatology is the study of climate change taken on the scale of the entire history of the earth.


The beginning of Earth's climate

Life flourishes in the Cambrian

The earth's history dates back more than 4.5 billion years (Ga) which is divided roughly into 2 eons called the "cryptozoic" [Gr. kryptos, hidden + zoo, life] and the "Phanerozoic" [Gr. phanerous, visible + zoo, life]. [Paleoclimatologists usually use geological time divisions, which would be the Priscoan, Archean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic Eons.] The division of these two eons is the boundary of the Precambrian and the Cambrian which occurred about 570Ma (570Ma means 570 million years before present, ie 570,000,000 BP). Originally it was thought that life began with the Cambrian. Evidence suggests that during this time the earth experienced perhaps the biggest explosion of diverse life forms that ever have been on the planet, and that since that time the total number of phyla has been gradually reduced with extinction after extinction (ref. Stephen Jay Gould: Wonderful life - the Story of the Cambrian and the Burgess Shale). Some influential researchers, including Briton Simon Conway Morris , an expert in the Burgess Shales, dispute the assertion that there were significantly more phyla at this time, suggesting that a number of creatures assigned to new phyla (particularly Hallucigenia) were actually arthropods or onychophores. Later work established that life evolved rather early in the history of the planet, perhaps as long as 4 billion years ago. Recent research suggests that life appeared on Earth just as soon as the planet cooled sufficiently for it to do so, and indeed may have arisen and been destroyed multiple times by planetismal impacts before the planet stabilized. This possibility has prompted some scientists to suggest that life is common in the universe, since it appeared so quickly here.

Techniques of paleoclimatology

Paleoclimatologists employ a wide variety of skills to arrive at their theories and conclusions.

Glaciers are a widely employed instrument in Paleoclimatology. The ice in glaciers has hardened into an identifiable pattern, with each year leaving a distinct layer. Inside of these layers scientists have found pollen, allowing them to estimate the total amount of plant growth of that year by the pollen count. The thickness of the layer can help to determine the amount of rainfall that year. It is estimated that the polar ice caps have 100,000 of these layers or more.

Petrified tree rings give Paleoclimatology data over a much larger stretch of time. The fossil itself is dated with radioactive dating within a wide margin of error. The rings themselves can give some information about rainfall and temperature during that epoch.

Sedimentary rock layers provide a more compressed view of climate, as each layer of sediment is made over a period of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Scientists can get a grasp of long term climate by studying sedimentary rock. Some scientists believe each layer designates a major change in climate.

Planet's timeline

Some of the mile stones that mark the history of the planet are as follows:

4,000Ma - earliest biogenic carbon

3,700Ma - oldest rocks

3,500Ma - oldest stromatolites

3,500Ma - first evidence of sex [ref. Origins of Sex : Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Yale University Press, Hartford, Connecticut, 1990, trade paperback, ISBN 0300046197 ]

3,450Ma - earliest bacteria

3,800Ma - banded iron formations (with reduced iron)

3,000Ma - earliest precambrian ice ages [need ref] [?] - Chuos Tillites of South-West Africa [?] - Sturtian Tillites of the Finders Range, South-central Australia

3,000Ma - earliest photosynthetic bacteria

2,700Ma - oldest chemical evidence of complex cells

2,300Ma - first green algae (eukaryotes)

2,000Ma - free oxygen in the atmosphere

2,000Ma to 1600Ma - Gowganda tillites in the Canadian shield

1,700Ma - end of the banded iron formations and red beds become abundant (non-reducing atmosphere)

700Ma - first metazoans late Proterozoic (Ediacaran Epoch) - first skeletons

570Ma to present - Phanerozic Eon [history of the phanerozoic goes in here]

100Ma - development of the angiosperms (flowering plants) 2ma to present - modern world and man's appearance on earth [whole history of man goes in here about 1/2000th of the time scale]

0.01Ma - end of the last ice age

0.001Ma - warming trend of the middle ages

0.0001Ma - end of the mini ice age

0.00022Ma to present - industrialized world and the introduction of man made greenhouse gases. [we need a chart showing all this - horizontal format I think will be best - with zoom capability]

History of the atmosphere

Earliest atmosphere

The earliest atmosphere of the Earth was probably blown off early in the history of the planet. These gases were later replaced by an atmosphere derived from outgassing from the Earth. It is in this way that the oceans and the present atmosphere came to be.

Carbon dioxide and free oxygen

Free oxygen did not exist until about 1,700Ma and this can be seen with the development of the red beds and the end of the banded iron formations. This signifies a shift from a reducing atmosphere to an oxidising atmosphere. The early atmosphere and hydrosphere (up until about 2,000Ma) were devoid of free Oxygen. Gradually early photosynthesis managed to convert the abundant CO2 releasing O2.

The very early atmosphere of the earth contained mostly carbon dioxide (CO2) : about 80%. This gradually dropped to about 20% by 3,500Ma. This coincides with the development of the first bacteria about 3,500Ma. By the time of the development of photosynthesis (2,700Ma), CO2 levels in the atmosphere were in the range of 15%. During the period from about 2,700Ma to about 2,000Ma, photosythesis dropped the CO2 concentrations from about 15% to about 8%. By about 2,000Ma free O2 was beginning to accumulate. This gradual reduction in CO2 levels continued to about 600Ma at which point CO2 levels were below 1% and O2 levels had risen to more than 15%. 600Ma corresponds to the end of the Precambrian and the beginning of the Cambrian, the end of the cryptozoic and the beginning of the Phanerozic, and the beginning of oxygen-breathing life.

Precambrian climate

The climate of the late Precambrian was typically cold with glaciation spreading over much of the earth. At this time the continents were bunched up in a supercontinent called Rodinia. Massive deposits of tillites are found and anomalous isotopic signatures are found which are consistent with the idea that the earth at this time was a massive snowball. [we need a map of Rodinia here showing the extent of the glaciation and where the continents were - Australia was near the equator then and Stuartin Tillites were deposited - can we get a picture of the geological section from the Flinders Range?]

As the Proterozoic Eon drew to a close the earth started to warm up. By the dawn of the Cambrian and the Phanerozoic Eon, Earth was experiencing average global temperatures of about +22C. 100's of millions of years of ice were replaced with the balmy tropical seas of the Cambrian Period during which life exploded at a rate never seen before or after. [ref. Stephen Jay Gould - Wonderful life, the story of the Burgess Shale].

Quaternary subera

The Quaternary subera includes the current climate. There has been a cycle of ice ages for the past 2.2-2.1 million years (starting before the Quaternary in the late Neogene Period).


  • Bradley, R.S. (1985). Quaternary paleoclimatology: Methods of paleoclimatic reconstruction. Allen & Unwin.
  • Crowley, T.J., and North, G.R. (1991). Paleoclimatology. Oxford. ISBN 0195105338
  • Imbrie, J., and Imbrie, K.P. (1979). Ice ages: Solving the mystery. Enslow.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45