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You Asked: Dinosaurs Survived When CO2 Was Extremely High. Why Can’t Humans?

You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. A reader reached out to us with this question: How did plants and animals survive around 200 million years ago when the carbon dioxide concentration went up to 6,000 parts per million?Paul Olsen, a geologist and paleontologist at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, walked us through what scientists know about carbon dioxide levels over time.

paul olsen with rock hammer
Paul Olsen is a geologist and paleontologist at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Photo: Kevin Krajick/Columbia Climate School

Although no one was around to measure the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration millions of years ago, paleoclimatologists can reconstruct past temperature and carbon dioxide levels using ice cores, tree rings, corals, ancient pollen, and sedimentary rocks. These natural recorders of climate fluctuations can also reveal how various animals and plants thrived or perished during different geological periods.

While studying the Age of Dinosaurs, for example, some researchers dissect leaves that got trapped in sediment layers. “The little holes in the skin of leaves are more common when there are lower carbon dioxide levels,” explained Olsen.

Scientists like Olsen have repeatedly found that during several periods of Earth’s history, organisms have experienced radically higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and hotter average temperatures than today. However, that doesn’t mean everything will be fine if we keep heating the planet by burning fossil fuels.

“The problem today is not higher global temperature or carbon dioxide levels alone. The problem is the rate of change,” explained Olsen. “Throughout most of the Earth’s history, carbon dioxide levels have generally changed very slowly. That gave organisms and their ecosystems sufficient time to adapt to climate change through both evolution and migration.”

Climate scientists warn that over the next century, the rate of change will be 10 times faster than any climate pattern that unfolded in the last 65 million years. Because of today’s rapid rate of warming, up to 14 percent of all plants and animals on land may face extinction in the coming decades, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Earth’s climatic ups and downs

During the Cambrian Period, which lasted from 542 million to 485.4 million years ago, some sources estimate that CO2 levels may have been about 20 times higher than today, and temperatures were hotter by 10 degrees Celsius.

Living things didn’t seem to mind the scorching conditions. During this time, the oxygenation of the oceans led to a burst of life known as the “Cambrian explosion.” There was a diverse range of marine creatures like trilobites, including larger ancient predators called Anomalocaris, and slug-shaped animals with shells. Meanwhile, on land, the earliest plants started taking root around 500 million years ago, possibly enjoying high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, said Olsen.

“But the proxies from 500 to 400 million years ago are not that well worked out at this time,” he cautioned. “Most of the data and graphs of carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s history start at around 350 million years ago.”

graph of co2
A reconstruction of carbon dioxide levels over the past 400 million years or so. Blue areas indicate ice ages. The graph shows that several mass extinction events occurred around the same time as rapid changes in CO2 levels. Source: Foster et al., 2017, with modifications by Paul Olsen

During the Ordovician Period (around 488.3 to 443.8 million years ago), the sea level was as much as 220 meters higher than today; the regions north of the tropical belt were under the ocean. Primitive fish, red algae, corals, and a few other marine animals like cephalopods and gastropods were a part of thriving ecosystems — until they were struck by an unprecedented tragedy, which may have been triggered by sudden changes in CO2 levels.

It was Earth’s first major mass extinction. Beginning about 443 million years ago, it wiped out approximately 85 percent of all marine species for up to two million years. The cause remains unknown, but some scientists speculate that it might have been associated with the formation of massive glaciers and a drastic drop in sea levels after the super-continent Gondwana drifted towards the South Pole. A 2012 study suggested that the first land plants might have caused global temperatures to plummet by absorbing CO2, triggering an ice age. Conversely, in a 2020 study, Canada-based scientists hypothesized that widespread volcanic eruptions released huge amounts of carbon dioxide that abruptly heated the planet and set off two pulses of mass extinctions within two million years.

How did dinosaurs survive despite exceptionally high CO2 levels?

The Triassic Period (252 to 201 million years ago) kicked off the age of dinosaurs.

“Back then, it was extremely hot because concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide were five times higher than today’s levels,” explained Olsen. “And yet, marine and terrestrial life was thriving.”

At the beginning of the Triassic Period, the supercontinent of Pangea encompassed the landmass of all seven modern-day continents. Mammal-like reptiles or synapsids dominated the world. Frogs and salamanders were just beginning to evolve. Following this, a wider range of archosaurs — a group of reptiles that includes crocodilians, birds, and dinosaurs — took over.

The first dinosaurs appeared around 232 million years ago. They were as small as dogs.

For the Late Triassic and earlier Jurassic (approximately 237-174 million years ago), scientists found zero evidence of polar glacial ice sheets in fossil records — likely a result of carbon dioxide levels that may have reached as high as 6,000 parts per million. During this greenhouse state, dense conifer and deciduous forests covered most of Pangea from the North Pole and the South Pole to the subtropical latitudes.

However, around 230 million years ago, Pangea started breaking up. While North America drifted away from Eurasia and Africa, magma intruded into Earth’s crust over a huge area, causing one of the most significant volcanic eruptions in the Earth’s history. It triggered a mass extinction event 202 million years ago that eliminated 80 percent of all organisms, including many formerly dominant types of large tropical reptiles of the Triassic, such as the crocodile-like phytosaurs.

Most researchers believe that the end-Triassic mass extinction event is directly connected with the widespread volcanic eruptions, said Olsen. Each eruption might have lasted continuously for tens or even hundreds of years, and there were many eruptions. They were associated with an abrupt doubling to tripling of atmospheric carbon dioxide within a short time.

“It is quite comparable to what humans are doing to the planet now,” he said. A 2019 study revealed that human activities are annually unleashing up to 100 times more carbon in the atmosphere than volcanoes.

The unusually high carbon dioxide levels 202 million years ago resulted in ocean acidification and anoxia, or loss of oxygen underwater. Olsen and his colleagues identified these factors as the biggest drivers of this great mass extinction event that wiped out marine invertebrates and corals.

In a recent study, they found that huge amounts of sulfur dioxide were also pumped into the atmosphere during the various pulses of volcanic eruptions. That caused intense, albeit short, cold periods as the sulfur aerosols reflected sunlight into outer space.

“That cold period might have lasted for only a few years or 100 years at most,” Olsen explained. On land, volcanic winters eliminated animals that did not have insulation such as feathers, fat, or thick layers of fur. Dinosaurs that had sufficient insulation survived and took over.

After each brief cold period, the Earth experienced tens to hundreds of thousands of years of global heating due to the abrupt increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from the eruptions.

How did global temperatures and CO2 levels stabilize before people came along?

Extremely high concentrations of carbon dioxide disappear from the atmosphere through three major mechanisms. The first one is that the ocean absorbs large amounts of it to create an equilibrium in the atmosphere.

Earth’s second mechanism to suck CO2 out of the air is through the weathering of rocks. The products of this type of natural carbon sequestration end up in the oceans as limestone.

The third mechanism is photosynthesis. Plants absorb carbon dioxide, and if they get buried in sediments before they decompose, the carbon in their tissues gets stored underground. These three mechanisms occur slowly over several thousands of years.

“But when the Earth experiences rapid changes in the concentrations of atmospheric CO2 — like what we are experiencing today because of human activities — these three mechanisms do not respond fast enough to compensate for the staggering rates of change,” explained Olsen.

Over the last 60 years, the annual rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 has been 100 times faster than the relatively recent natural increases that took place around 17,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. In 2021, the global average concentration of CO2 hit its highest recorded level of 414.72 ppm.

“This is similar to the rate of change that occurred around 202 million years ago, after gigantic volcanic eruptions and also, after asteroid impacts that triggered the fifth mass extinction event around 66 million years ago,” Olsen added.

Could humans survive hostile climatic conditions like those of the Dinosaur Age?

co2 levels over itme
Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been in the past 800,000 years. Image: NASA

Although the Earth has seen countless fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels in the past, most of them have been at rates at which organisms have been able to adapt and evolve to climate change. This is less likely at today’s rapid pace of warming.

“The rate of change that we are experiencing today because of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions is among the very highest that the Earth has ever seen,” said Olsen. “Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are normal states for our planet. Our current lower state is unusual. Yet, it is this rate of change that is the most important.”

Olsen hypothesized that even with extremely high atmospheric CO2 levels of 6,000 ppm that were recorded during the Age of Dinosaurs and the subsequent global heating, humans could potentially survive — thanks to technological advancements, rather than evolution.

And even though the interior regions of continents would be unbearably hot, places at higher latitudes may still be cool and inhabitable.

However, with high rates of climate change over short periods, Olsen warned that there will be significant social disruptions due to limited food and water resources — resulting in wars and conflicts.

In other words, our species could theoretically survive, but we probably would not be living our best lives.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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JL Huggins
1 year ago

Maybe too much of the earth has been paved with asphalt and concrete so the CO2 doesn’t dissipate back into the earth. It has nowhere to go but up.Has this been looked in to? What about adding something to gas to weigh the CO2 down? There must be a solution, other than not burning fossil fuels.

Sadie
Sadie
Reply to  JL Huggins
10 months ago

I agree. Why don’t we look into the asphalt and concrete idea?

GChambs
GChambs
Reply to  JL Huggins
7 months ago

Most of the Earth ~70% is ocean, a significant carbon sink. Only about 0.8% is covered in asphalt and concrete. A lot of CO2 will eventually be pulled back into the oceans (which will become slightly bigger if the polar ice caps melt) but this process results in ocean acidification which will make it hard for some marine animals to survive. Perhaps a solution could be to burn fossil fuels at a significantly slower rate, by either replacing them as an energy source for most things or making things that must use fossil fuels significantly more efficient

Norman Kessler
Norman Kessler
Reply to  GChambs
7 months ago

Your claim is Asphalt is only .8% of the earths surface is just as faulty as CO2 is the cause of GW or Climate Change at .0123% of the atmosphere. Dr Mann’s calculation do not consider roads, catalytic or Urban sprawl which is the greatest growth since 1880’s on the earth. Each catalytic converter is acting like a miniature furnace. Why in todays world during snow storms are the interstate highways free of snow while it is piling up on the ground around it. The roads are warmer than the ground. CO2 is not the culprit to Climate change. It is a corollary science not the driving force. Way too many variables make up weather and Climate, sun, volcanoes, earth rotation and tilt, sunspots, ocean currents, underground Volcanoes, wind to name a few

GreenHearted
GreenHearted
Reply to  Norman Kessler
3 months ago

You’re funny!

Swamprelic
Swamprelic
Reply to  Norman Kessler
25 days ago

Where I’m from the freeways are not free of snow until they plow multiple times and use rock salt to melt the snow. Not sure what planet your talking about!

Albert Anderson
Albert Anderson
1 year ago

Thanks for this thorough article. It is very helpful in explaining past climate changes and why the current human-caused change is so dangerous. I lead discussion groups at our church on environmental issues, and this information will be quite useful.

James
James
Reply to  Albert Anderson
10 months ago

Have you actually read the article? It does not give you any evidence of human caused climate change. Quite the opposite, the climate has always changed is what you should be taking from this article.

Greg
Greg
Reply to  James
8 months ago

Wow, not what the article concluded. I don’t think you read the same article. Although the Earth has seen countless fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels in the past, most of them have been at rates at which organisms have been able to adapt and evolve to climate change. This is less likely at today’s rapid pace of warming.
“The rate of change that we are experiencing today because of human driven GHG emissions is the highest the earth has seen.”

Allen Veasman
Allen Veasman
Reply to  Greg
8 months ago

Mother Nature has kept the Earth going and will keep it going until the Sun goes from a yellow dwarf star to a red giant star and engulfs Mercury, Venus, and Earth. Whaling industry gave us lights and other things until the Oil industry put them out of business.

Now if you want to put the oil industry out of business, come up with ways we can power planes, cars, trucks, trains, and ships cheaper than using fossil fuels.

And don’t listen to politicians when they say you NEED to just do this. We’ve been making alcohol and burning it for a long time. But most gasoline engines don’t work well for very long on E85 until corrosion destroys them. Then there is the 10% Ethanol 90% gas, that’s cheaper than 100% gasoline. But some engines don’t work as well or last as long as they do on 100% Gas. But ethanol is cheaper- Yes but the octane rating is lower. And aluminum exposed to Ethanol that has absorbed water corrodes aluminum. Not to mention that ethanol is made from crops which are planted, cultivated, harvested, that can be eaten by humans and livestock that are converted into the ethanol.Ethanol if it were not subsidized by the government would cost more per gallon than gasoline. And Fossil fuels are used to power the machinery the farmers used. So tell me again how 10% EGas is cheaper?

GChambs
GChambs
Reply to  Allen Veasman
7 months ago

There have been massive extinctions in the past and “Mother Nature” did indeed “keep going” and likely will. The problem is we weren’t around when the last mass extinctions happened, and from what our scientists can gather, periods of mass extinction aren’t fun times. The idea is not actually to “save the planet” or even the handful of animals or plants we actually like, instead we’re trying to save ourselves the trouble of dealing with floods, forest fires, more frequent hurricanes, draught, famine, mass migrations and (knowing humans will be humans) war that climate change (manmade or not) will inevitably to bring.

Jim
Jim
Reply to  Allen Veasman
7 months ago

Ethanol increases the octane rating of fuel but has less energy density hence is less efficient.

Allen Veasman
Allen Veasman
Reply to  Albert Anderson
8 months ago

Humans could go back to living in caves with no light other than campfires no electricity. That’s where we were at the peak of the last ICE AGE about 12,000 years ago. OBTW Ice was covering where NY is today miles deep. Ask yourself was it a good thing that CO2 went from about .012% of the atmosphere to .028%. If that really is what caused all the ice to melt.

What good would it do if America went to zero CO2 emissions and China and India keeps increasing their CO2 output going up? Who is going to feed US.

IF you can figure out a way to plow the ground with solar and wind you might have it figured out.

The US is easily the world’s largest food exporter. What is stupid is using crops that can feed people to produce fuel to power machines. Here’s my point. Yes you can make fuel to power machines from food crops that can feed people. But you can’t make food to feed the people from fuel that runs the machines.

GChambs
GChambs
Reply to  Allen Veasman
7 months ago

Between going back to living in caves or building a lot more nuclear power plants, I’d rather go with a lot more nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is zero CO2

GreenHearted
GreenHearted
Reply to  Allen Veasman
3 months ago

I think what’s stupid is using crops that can feed people to feed animals in order to kill them and eat them. Why not cut out the middle animal and just eat the plants? If the plants can make cattle grow to hundreds of pounds in weight, then they’ll nourish us just fine.

Rick
Rick
Reply to  GreenHearted
2 months ago

We are carnivores, that is why

Sadie
Sadie
10 months ago

I’m finding it hard to believe that carbon dioxide will kill plants. Since that’s what they need to live. Sure, the heat would kill them, but the CO2 itself would not, that’s what they need to survive. What plants will go extinct?

Allen Veasman
Allen Veasman
Reply to  Sadie
8 months ago

Who said CO2 will kill plants?

Robert Blayney
Robert Blayney
Reply to  Allen Veasman
7 months ago

Farmers use CO2 to boost crop yields!

‘Heat’ as in an extra degree or two… or three? So diminishing arctic wastelands and increasing bio-diverse sub-tropics and tropical regions.

The extra heat that we have since 50 years ago… must be the reason for a greener planet and significantly more reforestation than deforestation!

I’ll leave it there.

GreenHearted
GreenHearted
Reply to  Robert Blayney
3 months ago

No, the extra greening is from the extra CO2 in the atmosphere — along with China’s and India’s agricultural intensification. Unfortunately, the “greening” of leaves is coming with the dieback of forests.

GreenHearted
GreenHearted
Reply to  Sadie
3 months ago

Nobody is saying that CO2 kills plants directly. But the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is causing an increase in the intensity, frequency and/or duration of extreme weather events (heatwaves, soil drying and drought, wildfires that cause plant-destroying ground-level ozone, extreme precipitation events, floods, more pests, new diseases …).

Douglas Peffer
Douglas Peffer
Reply to  GreenHearted
3 months ago

It appeares that huricanes ect are still at preindustrial levals.
Ochean levals have incresed minimal and not the 20 foot increase propsed by the modle/ Al gore. Miami, NY And New Orleans are not flooded

Laurence Jackson
Laurence Jackson
4 months ago

Paul Olsen does not describe what foods could be grown in an atmosphere of 6,000 ppm CO2. That much CO2 would create a lot of carbonic acid making acid rain. Oceans and lakes would be at lot warmer, with a lot less oxygen. How could any significant aquatic life support intelligent people having a good food supply available ? How would anoxic water areas not grow and merge together creating the Canfield ocean with aneorobic bacteria becoming the dominant aquatic organism ? How would aneorobic bacteria not produce astronomical amounts of H2S, making a lot more acid rain and impossible to breath atmosphere which would kill most oxygen dependant organisms?

Indefatigable
Indefatigable
Reply to  Laurence Jackson
3 months ago

If your hypothesis were true, wouldn’t the highly acid rain already have decimated all plant and oxygen dependent animals, which would have been nearly all life?

jude
jude
3 months ago

I’d like to know if scientists are tracking the health of the marine-phytoplankton in the oceans. And what about the mass deaths of whales where windmill farms were placed in the ocean?

GreenHearted
GreenHearted
Reply to  jude
3 months ago
John Jacob
John Jacob
2 months ago

Wow! that was a nice converstion

Roddy pfeiffer
Roddy pfeiffer
2 months ago

None of the alarmist predictions made about CO2 and “global warming” have happened, so we are safe.

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Roddy pfeiffer
2 months ago

Yes, and we will still have global warming shoved down our throat as gospel truth. These green “scientists” assume all their hypothesis are acurate and any contrary hypothesis from opposing views is treated a naive and heretical.
Who here is the religious fanatic?

Amit Das
Amit Das
1 month ago

How do we know that he rate of change of CO2 was not rapid at times during the Mesozoic era? This rate of change 66-250 millions of years ago is impossible to determine today. All scientists should agree to this. Therefore, the rate of change logic does not hold water. All we are doing to is guesswork. What if there is a Natural time series periodicity for the heating-cooling cycle or CO2 levels that overshadows the effect caused by humans? What if the change in the wobble of the earth, changes in solar wind, etc. are causing the current global “so-called” warming phenomenon? The inaccuracies in temperature measurements in the 1800s should be factored into the 1.5 degree rise. Why don’t Climatologists talk about mechanisms of global cooling, like particulates from volcanoes, algae absorption of CO2, changes in the kinetics of change of the tilt of the earth changing between 22.1-24.5degrees ??
The Science is spotty as best, based on models which may not be accurate. The nay-sayers are treated with disdain. This cult mentality of Climatologists polarized to one side is akin to the political system in the US. We need to look at all parameters and stop painting doomsday scenario, so that more funding can be obtained and fame tied to drama.

Swamprelic
Swamprelic
25 days ago

I really hope the volcanic eruptions don’t become more active as we’ve heard from the past scientists that volcanic eruptions don’t as tremendous amounts or noteworthy amounts of CO2 into atmosphere. This article shows that we were lied to by alot of highly educated individuals. When they all lie on such a large scale it makes them irrelevant and no longer trustworthy. Sick of being manipulated and lied to by the people like John Kerry al gore all flying around in their jets leaving lights on in their numerous mansions that are not being used. Just a hour of flight time on their private jets contributes more CO2 into atmosphere then a family of four does in a entire year. That’s including driving heating their homes electricity usage flying commercially. WHY are they above us when they just pollute more and more everyday. Very disturbing and disgusting. I can not take any of these propagandists seriously until they set themselves as examples of how we should live. Why should we go without while they continue to overindulge every second of every minute of every hour of every single day. John Kerry came out and told us why he doesn’t have to. He said he has very important things to do and can’t waste his time…. He is telling all of us were nobody’s and to do as he says. Until we start having serious discussion about the biggest contributes like Kerry Gore and hundred of other politicians and elite individuals and why the need to stop polluting if they expect us to. Their professional hypocrites!

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