Caldeira Lab Research:Land Plants, Carbon, and Climate

The life span of the biosphere revisited

Ken Caldeira & James F. Kasting

It was previously suggested that eventual carbon dioxide starvation caused by enhanced silicate weathering and high solar luminosity would limit the life span of the biosphere to another 100 million years. However, using a more complicated model and the fact that some life can persist at very low CO2 concentration, it is predicted here that the biosphere could persists for at least .9 billion more years.

Caldeira, K. and Kasting, J.F., Life span of the biosphere revisited, Nature 360, 721–723, 1992.

Carbon dioxide, temperature, and biological productivity: As the sun continues to heat up and Earth's surface temperature reaches nearly 300K, carbon dioxide levels will eventually fall below what is necessary to sustain life, leading to the demise of biological productivity.


A decade ago, Lovelock and Whitfield raised the question of how much longer the biosphere can survive on Earth. They pointed out that, despite the current fossil-fuel induced increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration, the long-term trend should be in the opposite direction; as increased solar luminosity warms the Earth, silicate rocks should weather more readily causing atmospheric CO2 to decrease. In their model, atmospheric CO2 falls below the critical level for C3 photosynthesis, 150 parts per million (ppm), in only 100 Myr, and this is assumed to mark the demise of the biosphere as a whole. Here, we re-examine this problem using a more elaborate model that includes a more accurate treatment of the greenhouse effect of CO2, a biologically mediated weathering parameterization, and the realization that C4 photosynthesis can persist to much lower concentrations of atmospheric CO2 (<10ppm). We find that a C4-plant-based biosphere could survive for at least another .9 Gyr to 1.5 Gyr after the present time, depending respectively on whether CO2 or temperature is the limiting factor. Within an additional 1 Gyr, Earth may lose its water to space, thereby following the path of its sister planet, Venus.