Oceans Gasping for Breath
In a study published in the March issue of the journal Geology, a research team led by Christopher Pearce of the Open University in the UK examined layers of sedimentary rocks from the ocean floor. Their goal was to unravel the story of climate change during the early Jurassic period.
During the Jurassic, abrupt global warming of between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius was associated with severe environmental change. Many organisms went extinct and the global carbon cycle was thrown off balance. One of the most intriguing effects was that the oxygen content of the oceans became drastically reduced. This caused many marine species to die off.
These intervals of reduced oxygen content in the oceans are now known as oceanic anoxic events, or OAEs. OAEs are associated with periods of global warming and have occurred a few times in Earth's history. In the recent study, researchers focused specifically on the Toarcian OAE, a well-documented OAE from the early Jurassic.
During OAEs, the remains of dead organisms and other organic matter accumulate on the ocean floor and became layers of organic-rich sediments. Today, scientists are examining the chemical and isotopic compositions of these sedimentary deposits in order to determine the actual extent to which the oceans became anoxic. By doing so, they have been able to draw connections between oxygen-depleted oceans and the disruption of Earth's carbon cycle.
The carbon cycle on Earth is one of the most important cycles for life as we know it. Carbon is a primary building block of life and is present in every living organism. In order for life to survive on our planet, carbon must cycle between the atmosphere, geosphere (land), hydrosphere (water) and biosphere (life). If the carbon cycle were to suddenly become disrupted, many forms of life on Earth would not survive. Even minor disruptions in the carbon cycle can have profound consequences for living organisms.
Modern studies of global climate change on Earth usually rely on computer modeling techniques. However, studying the history of our planet through geology can provide information on actual occurrences of climate change in the past. Dr. Anthony Cohen, a member of the research team, commented: “The use of current computer models to try to predict the course of climate and environmental conditions in the longer term is uncertain because of our relatively poor understanding of the great complexity of the Earth’s behaviour. In contrast, marine sedimentary records can provide quantifiable information about precisely how the Earth has responded to severe environmental change in the past. Therefore, these records may also provide valuable constraints for testing the reliability of predictions about environmental change that will continue to occur in the future as a result of man’s activities.”
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