The Sensitivity of Earth's Climate History To Changes In The Rates of Biological And Geological Evolution

Monday, 15 December 2014
David Waltham, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, TW20, United Kingdom
The faint young Sun paradox (early Earth had surface liquid water despite solar luminosity 70% of the modern value) implies that our planet’s albedo has increased through time and/or greenhouse warming has fallen. The obvious explanation is that negative feedback processes stabilized temperatures. However, the limited temperature data available does not exhibit the expected residual temperature rise and, at least for the Phanerozoic, estimates of climate sensitivity exceed the Planck sensitivity (the zero net-feedback value). The alternate explanation is that biological and geological evolution have tended to cool Earth through time hence countering solar-driven warming. The coincidence that Earth-evolution has roughly cancelled Solar-evolution can then be explained as an emergent property of a complex system (the Gaia hypothesis) or the result of the unavoidable observational bias that Earth’s climate history must be compatible with our existence (the anthropic principle).

Here, I use a simple climate model to investigate the sensitivity of Earth’s climate to changes in the rate of Earth-evolution. Earth-evolution is represented by an effective emissivity which has an intrinsic variation through time (due to continental growth, the evolution of cyanobacteria, orbital fluctuations etc) plus a linear feedback term which enhances emissivity variations. An important feature of this model is a predicted maximum in the radiated-flux versus temperature function. If the increasing solar flux through time had exceeded this value then runaway warming would have occurred. For the best-guess temperature history and climate sensitivity, the Earth has always been within a few percent of this maximum. There is no obvious Gaian explanation for this flux-coincidence but the anthropic principle naturally explains it: If the rate of biological/geological evolution is naturally slow then Earth is a fortunate outlier which evolved just fast enough to avoid solar-induced over-heating.

However, there are large uncertainties concerning the temperature history of our planet and concerning climate sensitivity in the Archean and Proterozoic. When these are included, the solar-flux through time might have been as little as 70-90 % of the maximum thus reducing the significance of the flux-coincidence.