Fountain of youth underlies Antarctic Mountains

Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. -  Tim Creyts
Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. – Tim Creyts

Time ravages mountains, as it does people. Sharp features soften, and bodies grow shorter and rounder. But under the right conditions, some mountains refuse to age. In a new study, scientists explain why the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains in the middle of Antarctica looks as young as they do.

The Gamburtsevs were discovered in the 1950s, but remained unexplored until scientists flew ice-penetrating instruments over the mountains 60 years later. As this ancient hidden landscape came into focus, scientists were stunned to see the saw-toothed and towering crags of much younger mountains. Though the Gamburtsevs are contemporaries of the largely worn-down Appalachians, they looked more like the Rockies, which are nearly 200 million years younger.

More surprising still, the scientists discovered a vast network of lakes and rivers at the mountains’ base. Though water usually speeds erosion, here it seems to have kept erosion at bay. The reason, researchers now say, has to do with the thick ice that has entombed the Gamburtsevs since Antarctica went into a deep freeze 35 million years ago.

“The ice sheet acts like an anti-aging cream,” said the study’s lead author, Timothy Creyts, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It triggers a series of thermodynamic processes that have almost perfectly preserved the Gamburtsevs since ice began spreading across the continent.”

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, explains how the blanket of ice covering the Gamburtsevs has preserved its rugged ridgelines.

Snow falling at the surface of the ice sheet draws colder temperatures down, closer to protruding peaks in a process called divergent cooling. At the same time, heat radiating from bedrock beneath the ice sheet melts ice in the deep valleys to form rivers and lakes. As rivers course along the base of the ice sheet, high pressures from the overlying ice sheet push water up valleys in reverse. This uphill flow refreezes as it meets colder temperature from above. Thus, ridgelines are cryogenically preserved.

The oldest rocks in the Gamburtsevs formed more than a billion years ago, in the collision of several continents. Though these prototype mountains eroded away, a lingering crustal root became reactivated when the supercontinent Gondwana ripped apart, starting about 200 million years ago. Tectonic forces pushed the land up again to form the modern Gamburtsevs, which range across an area the size of the Alps. Erosion again chewed away at the mountains until earth entered a cooling phase 35 million years ago. Expanding outward from the Gamburtsevs, a growing layer of ice joined several other nucleation points to cover the entire continent in ice.

The researchers say that the mechanism that stalled aging of the Gamburtsevs at higher elevations may explain why some ridgelines in the Torngat Mountains on Canada’s Labrador Peninsula and the Scandinavian Mountains running through Norway, Sweden and Finland appear strikingly untouched. Massive ice sheets covered both landscapes during the last ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago, but many high-altitude features bear little trace of this event.

“The authors identify a mechanism whereby larger parts of mountains ranges in glaciated regions–not just Antarctica–could be spared from erosion,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University who was not involved in the study. “This is important because these uplands are nucleation centers for ice sheets. If they were to gradually erode during glacial cycles, they would become less effective as nucleation points during later ice ages.”

Ice sheet behavior, then, may influence climate change in ways that scientists and computer models have yet to appreciate. As study coauthor Fausto Ferraccioli, head of the British Antarctic Survey’s airborne geophysics group, put it: “If these mountains in interior East Antarctica had been more significantly eroded then the ice sheet itself
may have had a different history.”

Other Authors

Hugh Carr and Tom Jordan of the British Antarctic Survey; Robin Bell, Michael Wolovick and Nicholas Frearson of Lamont-Doherty; Kathryn Rose of University of Bristol; Detlef Damaske of Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources; David Braaten of Kansas University; and Carol Finn of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Copies of the paper, “Freezing of ridges and water networks preserves the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains for millions of years,” are available from the authors.

Scientist Contact

Tim Creyts


What sculpted Africa’s margin?

Break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana about 130 Million years ago could have lead to a completely different shape of the African and South American continent with an ocean south of today’s Sahara desert, as geoscientists from the University of Sydney and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences have shown through the use of sophisticated plate tectonic and three-dimensional numerical modelling. The study highlights the importance of rift orientation relative to extension direction as key factor deciding whether an ocean basin opens or an aborted rift basin forms in the continental interior.

For hundreds of millions of years, the southern continents of South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and India were united in the supercontinent Gondwana. While the causes for Gondwana’s fragmentation are still debated, it is clear that the supercontinent first split along along the East African coast in a western and eastern part before separation of South America from Africa took place. Today’s continental margins along the South Atlantic ocean and the subsurface graben structure of the West African Rift system in the African continent, extending from Nigeria northwards to Libya, provide key insights on the processes that shaped present-day Africa and South America. Christian Heine (University of Sydney) and Sascha Brune (GFZ) investigated why the South Atlantic part of this giant rift system evolved into an ocean basin, whereas its northern part along the West African Rift became stuck.

“Extension along the so-called South Atlantic and West African rift systems was about to split the African-South American part of Gondwana North-South into nearly equal halves, generating a South Atlantic and a Saharan Atlantic Ocean”, geoscientist Sascha Brune explains. “In a dramatic plate tectonic twist, however, a competing rift along the present-day Equatorial Atlantic margins, won over the West African rift, causing it to become extinct, avoiding the break-up of the African continent and the formation of a Saharan Atlantic ocean.” The complex numerical models provide a strikingly simple explanation: the larger the angle between rift trend and extensional direction, the more force is required to maintain a rift system. The West African rift featured a nearly orthogonal orientation with respect to westward extension which required distinctly more force than its ultimately successful Equatorial Atlantic opponent.

The complicated birth of a volcano

Snow storms, ice and glaciers – these are the usual images we associate with the Antarctic. But at the same time it is also a region of fire: the Antarctic continent and surrounding waters are dotted with volcanoes – some of them still active and others extinct for quite some time. The Marie Byrd Seamounts in the Amundsen Sea are in the latter group. Their summit plateaus are today at depths of 2400-1600 meters. Because they are very difficult to reach with conventional research vessels, they have hardly been explored, even though the Marie Byrd Seamounts are fascinating formations. They do not fit any of the usual models for the formation of volcanoes. Now geologists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel were able to find a possible explanation for the existence of these seamounts on the basis of rare specimens. The study is published in the international journal “Gondwana Research“.

Classic volcanologists differentiate between two types of fire mountains. One type is generated where tectonic plates meet, so the earth’s crust is already cracked to begin with. The other type is formed within the earth’s plates. “The latter are called intraplate volcanoes. They are often found above a so-called mantle plume. Hot material rises from the deep mantle, collects under the earth’s crust, makes its way to the surface and forms a volcano,” said Dr. Reinhard Werner, one of the authors of the current paper. One example are the Hawaiian Islands. But neither of the above models fits the Marie Byrd Seamounts. “There are no plate boundary in the vicinity and no plume underground,” says graduate geologist Andrea Kipf from GEOMAR, first author of the study.

To clarify the origin of the Marie Byrd Seamounts, in 2006 the Kiel scientists participated in an expedition of the research vessel POLARSTEN in the Amundsen Sea. They salvaged rock samples from the seamounts and subjected these to thorough geological, volcanological and geochemical investigations after returning to the home labs. “Interestingly enough, we found chemical signatures that are typical of plume volcanoes. And they are very similar to volcanoes in New Zealand and the Antarctic continent,” says geochemist Dr. Folkmar Hauff, second author of the paper.

Based on this finding, the researchers sought an explanation. They found it in the history of tectonic plates in the southern hemisphere. Around 100 million years ago, remains of the former supercontinent Gondwana were located in the area of present Antarctica. A mantle plume melted through this continental plate and cracked it open. Two new continents were born: the Antarctic and “Zealandia”, with the islands of New Zealand still in evidence today. When the young continents drifted in different directions away from the mantle plume, large quantities of hot plume material were attached to their undersides. These formed reservoirs for future volcanic eruptions on the two continents. “This process explains why we find signatures of plume material at volcanoes that are not on top of plumes,” says Dr. Hauff.

But that still does not explain the Marie Byrd Seamounts because they are not located on the Antarctic continent, but on the adjacent oceanic crust instead. “Continental tectonic plates are thicker than the oceanic ones. This ensures, among other things, differences in temperature in the underground,” says volcanologist Dr. Werner. And just as air masses of different temperatures create winds, the temperature differences under the earth’s crust generate flows and movements as well. Thus the plume material, that once lay beneath the continent, was able to shift under the oceanic plate. With disruptions due to other tectonic processes, there were cracks and crevices which allowed the hot material to rise, turn into magma and then- about 60 million years ago – allowed the Marie Byrd Seamounts to grow. “This created islands are comparable to the Canary Islands today,” explains Andrea Kipf. “Some day the volcanoes became extinct again, wind and weather eroded the cone down to sea level, and other geological processes further eroded the seamounts. Finally, the summit plateaus arrived at the level that we know today,” the PhD student describes the last step of the development.

Based on the previously little investigated Marie Byrd Seamounts, the researchers were able to show another example of how diverse and complex the processes are, that can cause volcanism. “We are still far from understanding all of these processes. But with the current study, we can contribute a small piece to the overall picture,” says Dr. Werner.

Study reveals ancient jigsaw puzzle of past supercontinent

A new study published today in the journal Gondwana Research, has revealed the past position of the Australian, Antarctic and Indian tectonic plates, demonstrating how they formed the supercontinent Gondwana 165 million years ago.

Researchers from Royal Holloway University, The Australian National University and Geoscience Australia, have helped clear up previous uncertainties on how the plates evolved and where they should be positioned when drawing up a picture of the past.

Dr Lloyd White from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway University said: “The Earth’s tectonic plates move around through time. As these movements occur over many millions of years, it has previously been difficult to produce accurate maps of where the continents were in the past.

“We used a computer program to move geological maps of Australia, India and Antarctica back through time and built a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of the supercontinent Gondwana. During the process, we found that many existing studies had positioned the plates in the wrong place because the geological units did not align on each plate.”

The researchers adopted an old technique used by people who discovered the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics, but which had largely been ignored by many modern scientists.

“It was a simple technique, matching the geological boundaries on each plate. The geological units formed before the continents broke apart, so we used their position to put this ancient jigsaw puzzle back together again,” Dr White added.

“It is important that we know where the plates existed many millions of years ago, and how they broke apart, as the regions where plates break are often where we find major oil and gas deposits, such as those that are found along Australia’s southern margin.”

Cracking the ice code

UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. -  Troye Fox
UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. – Troye Fox

What happened the last time a vegetated Earth shifted from an extremely cold climate to desert-like conditions? And what does it tell us about climate change today?

John Isbell is on a quest to coax that information from the geology of the southernmost portions of the Earth. It won’t be easy, because the last transition from “icehouse to greenhouse” occurred between 335 and 290 million years ago.

An expert in glaciation from the late Paleozoic Era, Isbell is challenging many assumptions about the way drastic climate change naturally unfolds. The research helps form the all-important baseline needed to predict what the added effects of human activity will bring.

Starting from ‘deep freeze’

In the late Paleozoic, the modern continents were fused together into two huge land masses, with what is now the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, called Gondwana.

During the span of more than 60 million years, Gondwana shifted from a state of deep freeze into one so hot and dry it supported the appearance of reptiles. The change, however, didn’t happen uniformly, Isbell says.

In fact, his research has shaken the common belief that Gondwana was covered by one massive sheet of ice which gradually and steadily melted away as conditions warmed.

Isbell has found that at least 22 individual ice sheets were located in various places over the region. And the state of glaciation during the long warming period was marked by dramatic swings in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

“There appears to be a direct association between low CO2 levels and glaciation,” he says. “A lot of the changes in greenhouse gases and in a shrinking ice volume then are similar to what we’re seeing today.”

When the ice finally started disappearing, he says, it did so in the polar regions first and lingered in other parts of Gondwana with higher elevations. He attributes that to different conditions across Gondwana, such as mountain-building events, which would have preserved glaciers longer.

All about the carbon

To get an accurate picture of the range of conditions in the late Paleozoic, Isbell has traveled to Antarctica 16 times and has joined colleagues from around the world as part of an interdisciplinary team funded by the National Science Foundation. They have regularly gone to places where no one has ever walked on the rocks before.

One of his colleagues is paleoecologist Erik Gulbranson, who studies plant communities from the tail end of the Paleozoic and how they evolved in concert with the climatic changes. The information contained in fossil soil and plants, he says, can reveal a lot about carbon cycling, which is so central for applying the work to climate change today.

Documenting the particulars of how the carbon cycle behaved so long ago will allow them to answer questions like, ‘What was the main force behind glaciation during the late Paleozoic? Was it mountain-building or climate change?’

Another characteristic of the late Paleozoic shift is that once the climate warmed significantly and atmospheric CO2 levels soared, the Earth’s climate remained hot and dry for another 200 million years.

“These natural cycles are very long, and that’s an important difference with what we’re seeing with the contemporary global climate change,” says Gulbranson. “Today, we’re seeing change in greenhouse gas concentrations of CO2 on the order of centuries and decades.”

Ancient trees and soil

In order to explain today’s accelerated warming, Gulbranson’s research illustrates that glaciers alone don’t tell the whole story.

Many environmental factors leave an imprint on the carbon contained in tree trunks from this period. One of the things Gulbranson hypothesizes from his research in Antarctica is that an increase in deciduous trees occurred in higher latitudes during the late Paleozoic, driven by higher temperatures.

What he doesn’t yet know is what the net effect was on the carbon cycle.

While trees soak in CO2 and give off oxygen, there are other environmental processes to consider, says Gulbranson. For example, CO2 emissions also come from soil as microbes speed up their consumption of organic matter with rising temperatures.

“The high latitudes today contain the largest amount of carbon locked up as organic material and permafrost soils on Earth today,” he says. “It actually exceeds the amount of carbon you can measure in the rain forests. So what happens to that stockpile of carbon when you warm it and grow a forest over it is completely unknown.”

Another unknown is whether the Northern Hemisphere during this time was also glaciated and warming. The pair are about to find out. With UWM backing, they will do field work in northeastern Russia this summer to study glacial deposits from the late Paleozoic.

The two scientists’ work is complementary. Dating the rock is essential to pinpointing the rate of change in the carbon cycle, which would be the warning signal we could use today to indicate that nature is becoming dangerously unbalanced.

“If we figure out what happened with the glaciers,” says Isbell, “and add it to what we know about other conditions – we will be able to unlock the answers to climate change.”

Gondwana supercontinent underwent massive shift during Cambrian explosion

The paleomagnetic record from the Amadeus Basin in Australia (marked by the star) indicate a large shift in some parts of the Gondwana supercontinent relative to the South Pole. -  Ross Mitchell/Yale University
The paleomagnetic record from the Amadeus Basin in Australia (marked by the star) indicate a large shift in some parts of the Gondwana supercontinent relative to the South Pole. – Ross Mitchell/Yale University

The Gondwana supercontinent underwent a 60-degree rotation across Earth’s surface during the Early Cambrian period, according to new evidence uncovered by a team of Yale University geologists. Gondwana made up the southern half of Pangaea, the giant supercontinent that constituted the Earth’s landmass before it broke up into the separate continents we see today. The study, which appears in the August issue of the journal Geology, has implications for the environmental conditions that existed at a crucial period in Earth’s evolutionary history called the Cambrian explosion, when most of the major groups of complex animals rapidly appeared.

The team studied the paleomagnetic record of the Amadeus Basin in central Australia, which was part of the Gondwana precursor supercontinent. Based on the directions of the ancient rock’s magnetization, they discovered that the entire Gondwana landmass underwent a rapid 60-degree rotational shift, with some regions attaining a speed of at least 16 (+12/-8) cm/year, about 525 million years ago. By comparison, the fastest shifts we see today are at speeds of about four cm/year.

This was the first large-scale rotation that Gondwana underwent after forming, said Ross Mitchell, a Yale graduate student and author of the study. The shift could either be the result of plate tectonics (the individual motion of continental plates with respect to one another) or “true polar wander,” in which the Earth’s solid land mass (down to the liquid outer core almost 3,000 km deep) rotates together with respect to the planet’s rotational axis, changing the location of the geographic poles, Mitchell said.

The debate about the role of true polar wander versus plate tectonics in defining the motions of Earth’s continents has been going on in the scientific community for decades, as more and more evidence is gathered, Mitchell said.

In this case, Mitchell and his team suggest that the rates of Gondwana’s motion exceed those of “normal” plate tectonics as derived from the record of the past few hundred million years. “If true polar wander caused the shift, that makes sense. If the shift was due to plate tectonics, we’d have to come up with some pretty novel explanations.”

Whatever the cause, the massive shift had some major consequences. As a result of the rotation, the area that is now Brazil would have rapidly moved from close to the southern pole toward the tropics. Such large movements of landmass would have affected environmental factors such as carbon concentrations and ocean levels, Mitchell said.

“There were dramatic environmental changes taking place during the Early Cambrian, right at the same time as Gondwana was undergoing this massive shift,” he said. “Apart from our understanding of plate tectonics and true polar wander, this could have had huge implications for the Cambrian explosion of animal life at that time.”

Super glaciers leave their mark on the Gondwanan supercontinent

This is a proposed cover illustration, provided by the editors, for GSA Special Paper 468, 'Late Paleozoic Glacial Events and Postglacial Transgressions in Gondwana.' The collection covers state-of-the-art critical topics related to the Late Paleozoic Glaciation and deglaciation-triggered sea-level rise that affected Gondwana. -  Geological Society of America
This is a proposed cover illustration, provided by the editors, for GSA Special Paper 468, ‘Late Paleozoic Glacial Events and Postglacial Transgressions in Gondwana.’ The collection covers state-of-the-art critical topics related to the Late Paleozoic Glaciation and deglaciation-triggered sea-level rise that affected Gondwana. – Geological Society of America

This new Special Paper from The Geological Society of America comprises a wide range of topics related to one of the most extreme paleoclimatic episodes in Earth’s history, the Late Paleozoic Ice Age (LPIA). With over 100 illustrations, chapters paint a broad swath across Gondwana while focusing on specific topics related to the effects of LPIA glaciation and deglaciation-triggered sea-level rise on the supercontinent.

The book’s objective, say editors Oscar R. López-Gamundí of Hess Corporation and Luis A. Buatois of the University of Saskatchewan, is “not to give a state-of-the-art review of the Late Paleozoic Ice Age,” which has been done with competency elsewhere, but, rather, to turn the reader’s attention toward facets of the LPIA that require further study.

Topics include the sedimentologic, paleoenvironmental, and paleoclimatic aspects of the glacial event; the influence of postglacial transgressions on the salinity of coastlines; the nature of glacial and glacially influenced ecosystems, with a look at the faunas (including the Levipustula Fauna) and floras of the time; analysis and illustration of trace fossil assemblies; and discussion of relatively less well-known glacial deposits in some Gondwanan regions. One chapter even challenges the popular interpretation that there was a single massive ice sheet over much of Gondwana during the late Paleozoic glaciation.

Volcanoes played pivotal role in ancient ice age, mass extinction

Researchers at Ohio State University have discovered that volcanoes played a pivotal role in a deadly ice age that occurred nearly half a billion years ago. This photograph shows volcanic ash beds -- formed around 455 million years ago -- layered in the rock of the Nashville Dome area in central Tennessee. -  Photo by Matthew Saltzman, courtesy of Ohio State University.
Researchers at Ohio State University have discovered that volcanoes played a pivotal role in a deadly ice age that occurred nearly half a billion years ago. This photograph shows volcanic ash beds — formed around 455 million years ago — layered in the rock of the Nashville Dome area in central Tennessee. – Photo by Matthew Saltzman, courtesy of Ohio State University.

Researchers here have discovered the pivotal role that volcanoes played in a deadly ice age 450 million years ago.

Perhaps ironically, these volcanoes first caused global warming — by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

When they stopped erupting, Earth’s climate was thrown off balance, and the ice age began.

The discovery underscores the importance of carbon in Earth’s climate today, said Matthew Saltzman, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

The results will appear in the journal Geology, in a paper now available online.

Previously, Saltzman and his team linked this same ice age to the rise of the Appalachian Mountains. As the exposed rock weathered, chemical reactions pulled carbon from Earth’s atmosphere, causing a global cooling which ultimately killed two-thirds of all species on the planet.

Now the researchers have discovered the other half of the story: giant volcanoes that formed during the closing of the proto-Atlantic Ocean — known as the Iapetus Ocean — set the stage for the rise of the Appalachians and the ice age that followed.

“Our model shows that these Atlantic volcanoes were spewing carbon into the atmosphere at the same time the Appalachians were removing it,” Saltzman explained. “For nearly 10 million years, the climate was at a stalemate. Then the eruptions abruptly stopped, and atmospheric carbon levels fell well below what they were in the time before volcanism. That kicked off the ice age,” he said.

This is the first evidence that a decrease in carbon from volcanic degassing — combined with continued weathering of the Appalachians — caused the long-enigmatic glaciation and extinction in the Ordovician period.

Here is the picture the researchers have assembled: 460 million years ago, during the Ordovician, volcanoes along the margin of what is now the Atlantic Ocean spewed massive amounts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, turning the world into a hothouse. Lava from those volcanoes eventually collided with North America to form the Appalachian Mountains.

Acid rain — rich in carbon dioxide — pelted the newly exposed Appalachian rock and wore it away. Chemical reactions trapped the carbon in the resulting sediment, which formed reefs in the vast seas that covered North America.

For about 10 million years, the volcanoes continued to add carbon to the atmosphere as the Appalachians removed it, so the hothouse conditions remained stable. Life flourished in the warm oceans, including abundant species of trilobites and brachiopods.

Then, 450 million years ago, the eruptions stopped. But the Appalachians continued weathering, and atmospheric carbon levels plummeted. The Earth swung from a hothouse to an icehouse.

By 445 million years ago, glaciers had covered the south pole on top of the supercontinent of Gondwana (which would eventually break apart to form the continents of the southern hemisphere). Two-thirds of all species had perished.

When they started this research, Saltzman and his team knew that Earth’s climate must have changed drastically at the end of the Ordovician. But they didn’t know for certain that volcanoes were the driving force, explained Seth Young, who did this research for his doctoral degree at Ohio State. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University.

“This was not necessarily what we expected when we started investigating, but as we combined our data sources, the story began to fall into place,” Young said.

Using a computer model, they drew together measurements of isotopes of chemical elements — including strontium from rocks in Nevada and neodymium from rocks in Virginia and Pennsylvania — with measurements of volcanic ash beds in the same locations. Then they factored in temperature models developed by other researchers.

The ash deposits demonstrated when the volcanoes stopped erupting; the strontium levels indicated that large amounts of volcanic rock were being eroded and the sediment was flooding Earth’s oceans during this time; and the neodymium levels pinpointed the Appalachians as the source of the sediment.

The new findings mesh well with what scientists know about these ancient proto-Atlantic volcanoes, which are thought to have produced the largest eruptions in Earth’s history. They issued enough lava to form the Appalachians, enough ash to cover the far ends of the earth, and enough carbon to heat the globe. Atmospheric carbon levels grew 20 times higher than they are today.

This study shows that when those volcanoes stopped erupting, carbon levels dropped, and the climate swung dramatically back to cold. The timing coincides with today’s best estimates of temperature fluctuations in the Ordovician.

“The ash beds start building up at the same time the Appalachian weathering begins, but then the record of volcanism ends, and the temperature drops,” Saltzman said. “Knowing these details can help us understand how carbon in the atmosphere is changing Earth’s climate today.”

Next, the researchers will examine the role of the ancient volcanic ash more closely. While the ash was in the atmosphere — before it settled around the globe — it might have blotted out the sun, and cooled the earth somewhat. Saltzman and his team want to make some estimate of this short-term cooling effect to refine their computer model.

Meanwhile, Young is just starting to re-analyze the same rock samples, this time looking for a different isotope — sulfur. This, he hopes, will offer clues to how much oxygen was in the oceans, and how that oxygen may have affected life in the Ordovician.