Weird Science

Jagoutz’ co-authors are Francis Macdonald and Lorraine Lisiecki of UC Santa Barbara, and Nicholas Swanson-Hysell and Yuem Park of UC Berkeley.

A tropical trigger

When an oceanic plate pushes up against a continental plate, the collision typically creates a mountain range of newly exposed rock. The fault zone along which the oceanic and continental plates collide is called a “suture.” Today, certain mountain ranges such as the Himalayas contain sutures that have migrated from their original collision points, as continents have shifted over millenia.

In 2016, Jagoutz and his colleagues retraced the movements of two sutures that today make up the Himalayas. They found that both sutures stemmed from the same tectonic migration. Eighty million years ago, as the supercontinent known as Gondwana moved north, part of the landmass was crushed against Eurasia, exposing a long line of oceanic rock and creating the first suture; 50 million years ago, another collision between the supercontinents created a second suture.

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The team found that both collisions occurred in tropical zones near the equator, and both preceded global atmospheric cooling events by several million years — which is nearly instantaneous on a geologic timescale. After looking into the rates at which exposed oceanic rock, also known as ophiolites, could react with carbon dioxide in the tropics, the researchers concluded that, given their location and magnitude, both sutures could have indeed sequestered enough carbon dioxide to cool the atmosphere and trigger both ice ages.

Interestingly, they found that this process was likely responsible for ending both ice ages as well. Over millions of years, the oceanic rock that was available to react with the atmosphere eventually eroded away, replaced with new rock that took up far less carbon dioxide.

“We showed that this process can start and end glaciation,” Jagoutz says. “Then we wondered, how often does that work? If our hypothesis is correct, we should find that for every time there’s a cooling event, there are a lot of sutures in the tropics.”

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