DATE: July 8, 2019

SNIP: Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has found that when the rate at which carbon dioxide enters the oceans pushes past a certain threshold—whether as the result of a sudden burst or a slow, steady influx—the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.

This global reflex causes huge changes in the amount of carbon contained in the Earth’s oceans, and geologists can see evidence of these changes in layers of sediments preserved over hundreds of millions of years.

Rothman looked through these geologic records and observed that over the last 540 million years, the ocean’s store of carbon changed abruptly, then recovered, dozens of times in a fashion similar to the abrupt nature of a neuron spike. This “excitation” of the carbon cycle occurred most dramatically near the time of four of the five great mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

Scientists have attributed various triggers to these events, and they have assumed that the changes in ocean carbon that followed were proportional to the initial trigger—for instance, the smaller the trigger, the smaller the environmental fallout.

But Rothman says that’s not the case. It didn’t matter what initially caused the events; for roughly half the disruptions in his database, once they were set in motion, the rate at which carbon increased was essentially the same. Their characteristic rate is likely a property of the carbon cycle itself—not the triggers, because different triggers would operate at different rates.

According to Rothman, today we are “at the precipice of excitation,” and if it occurs, the resulting spike—as evidenced through ocean acidification, species die-offs, and more—is likely to be similar to past global catastrophes.

“When you go past a threshold, you get a free kick from the system responding by itself,” Rothman explains. “The system is on an inexorable rise. This is what excitability is, and how a neuron works too.”

In other words, if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.

“It’s difficult to know how things will end up given what’s happening today,” Rothman says. “But we’re probably close to a critical threshold. Any spike would reach its maximum after about 10,000 years.”