Caldeira Lab Research:Paleoclimate and geochemical cycles

Susceptibility of the early Earth to irreversible glaciation caused by carbon dioxide clouds

Ken Caldeira & James F. Kasting

A continuing question about Earth's early years is how a life sustaining world developed at times of very low solar luminosity -- luminosity low enough to cause runaway glaciation today according to several predictions. One theory involves the buildup of greenhouse gasses that kept the Earth warm. This paper outlines the possibility that a buildup of greenhouse causes could have led to the creation of carbon dioxide clouds that could have caused irreversible glaciation on the planet's surface.

Caldeira, K. and Kasting, J.F., Susceptibility of the early Earth to irreversible glaciation caused by CO2 clouds, Nature 359, 226–228, 1992.

Ice line changes relative to solar luminosity: Ice-line latitude graphed as a function of solar flux for various atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The point at which the ice line causes an unstable environment is also shown. Upon a perturbation of the environment that would cause the Earth to change to an ice covered state, enough CO2 could possibly build in the atmosphere to raise the temperature and eventually melt the ice.


Simple energy-balance climate models of the Budyko/Sellers type predict that a small (2-5%) decrease in solar output could result in runaway glaciation on the Earth. But solar fluxes 25-30% lower early in the Earth's history apparently did not lead to this result. One currently favored explanation is that high partial pressures of carbon dioxide, caused by higher volcanic outgassing rates and/or slower rates of silicate weathering, created a large enough greenhouse effect to keep the planet warm. This does not resolve the problem of climate stability, however, because as we argue here, the oceans can feeze much more quickly than CO2 can accumulate in the atmosphere. Had such a transient global glaciation occurred in the distant past when solar luminosity was low, it might have been irreversible because of the formation of highly reflective CO2 clouds, similar to those encountered in climate simulations of early Mars. Our simulations of the early Earth, incorporating the possible formation of such clouds, suggest that the Earth might not be habitable today had it not been warm during the first part of its history.