The research team, led by Mark Pagani of Yale University, found that the critical role of plants in the chemical breakdown and weathering of rocks and soil gave them a strong influence on carbon dioxide levels. It was a link that earlier studies had missed.
"Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been remarkably stable over the last 20 or 25 million years despite other changes in the environment," says co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. "We can look to land plants as the primary buffering agent that's held CO2 in such a narrow range during this time."
Over geologic time, large volumes of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere by volcanoes. This would cause CO2 to build up in the atmosphere were it not for countervailing geologic processes of sedimentation, which bury carbon-containing minerals in the crust, sequestering it from the atmosphere. The overall rate of sedimentation is controlled by the upthrust of mountains and the erosion and chemical breakdown of their rocks.
The rise of the Andes, Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, and mountain ranges in western North America over the past 25 million years would have been expected to have cause faster weathering and erosion, and therefore a faster burial of carbon drawn from the atmosphere. But the stability of carbon dioxide levels indicate that this didn't happen. Why not?
This is where the plants come in.
"The rates of weathering reactions are largely controlled by plants. Their roots secrete acids that dissolve minerals, they hold soils, and they increase the amount of carbon dissolved in groundwater," says Caldeira. "But when levels of carbon dioxide get too low, the plants basically suffocate and the weathering slows down. That means less sediment is eroded from the uplands and less carbon can be buried. It's a negative feedback on the system that has kept carbon dioxide levels from dropping too low."
Extremely low carbon dioxide levels would have reduced the atmosphere's ability to retain heat, putting the planet into a deep freeze. "So you could say that by limiting the drawdown of CO2 by chemical weathering and sedimentation, plants saved the planet from freezing over," says Caldeira.
Could plants save us from rising carbon dioxide from human emissions and harmful greenhouse warming?
No, says Caldeira. "We are releasing CO2 to the atmosphere about 100 times faster than all the volcanoes in the world put together. While these weathering processes will eventually remove the CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere, they act too slowly to help us avoid dangerous climate change. It will take hundreds of thousands of years for these rock weathering processes to remove our fossil fuel emissions from the atmosphere."