It may not occur to many of us, but continental erosion from the ongoing collision between the Indian subcontinent and Asia has contributed to weathering processes that make advanced life on Earth possible. In my book Weathering Climate Change I explain why—for global human civilization to be possible—we must be living in the midst of an ice age cycle.1 The cycle has been in place for about 2.58 million years, a tiny fraction of Earth’s life history. However, the Sun is brighter than it ever has been during the entire past 3.8-billion-year-long history of life. Thus, an ice age cycle seems unlikely.

During the human era, the Sun has been shining about 23% brighter than it did at the time of life’s origin. Aside from the current cycle, for about 90% of the past 3.8 billion years Earth has measured to be ice-free.

Onset of Rapid Silicate Weathering
Why is there an ice age cycle during the Sun’s brightest epoch? The answer to this conundrum can be found in the late Cenozoic cooling of Earth caused by a sharp decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide. (The Cenozoic era extends from 66 million years ago until the present.) Since carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas, its decline would mean that the atmosphere would trap much less of the Sun’s incoming radiation. Geologists have recognized that the decline arose from accelerated silicate weathering, driven especially by enhanced erosion that followed the tectonic collision between the Indian subcontinent and Asia. This collision formed the Himalayan Mountains and uplifted the Tibetan Plateau. The resulting high glaciers and steep slopes accelerated Earth’s continental erosion rate.

Silicate weathering takes place when rain falling on exposed silicates (continents are primarily composed of silicates) acts as a catalyst to convert silicates and atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbonates and sand. The chemical reaction is displayed below:

CaSiO3 + 2CO2 + H2 Ca++ + 2HCO3 + SiO2
Ca++ + 2HCO3  CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O

The net reaction is:

CaSiO3 + CO2  CaCO3 + SiO2

The example here is for calcium silicate. The reaction is the same for any other metal silicate.

Measurements Affirming Accelerated Silicate Weathering
One way scientists learn about Earth’s past climate is to study proxies. These are preserved physical characteristics of the past that stand in for direct meteorological measurements. Multiple chemical proxies confirm that accelerated silicate weathering occurred during the late Cenozoic. These proxies include strontium, osmium, and lithium isotope measurements.2 Confirmation also comes from measurements of carbonate compensation depth.3 Furthermore, sedimentary records show a nearly fourfold worldwide acceleration of erosion rates during the late Cenozoic,4 and bedrock thermochronometric measurements in the world’s most mountainous regions reveal a twofold increase in erosion rates during the past 8 million years.5 The one proxy that has not fit this scenario is beryllium isotope measurements.

Three geochemists, Shilei Li, Steven Goldstein, and Maureen Raymo, did a deeper, more extensive study of beryllium isotope measurements.6 They produced a detailed beryllium cycle model that completely resolved the discrepancy between the beryllium records and all the other silicate weathering proxies. They showed how Be-10/Be-9 records permit up to an elevenfold increase in beryllium weathering during the late Cenozoic. Now, all the weathering and erosion proxies are consistent with current understanding of accelerated silicate weathering and terrestrial erosion during the late Cenozoic.

Initiation of an Ice Age Cycle without Runaway Cooling
The collision between the Indian subcontinent and Asia is ongoing. Consequently, the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau are still being pushed up. To prevent a runaway cooling where thick ice covers nearly all of Earth’s surface there must be compensating factors that counterbalance the cooling from accelerated silicate weathering by just-right amounts.

In their paper, the three geochemists identified four compensating factors:

1. The degassing of carbon dioxide from volcanism and metamorphism
2. Enhanced carbonate dissolution by sulfuric acid produced by pyrite weathering
3. Accelerated oxidation of organic carbon
4. Reduced basalt weathering

All four occurred at just-right rates as the global climate cooled.

Geologic Design Features
Combining the team’s research findings with a much broader study of geologic, atmospheric, hydrospheric, and biological histories that I have described in three books7 establishes an astounding fine-tuning of Earth and its life. Earth’s history reveals the opening of a brief time window—less than 12,000 years wide—for global human civilization to thrive. This discovery provides one more out of many examples in the geosciences that the more we learn about our planet and its history, the more evidence we uncover for the supernatural, super-intelligent handiwork of the Creator God of the Bible.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes

  1. Hugh Ross, Weathering Climate Change (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2020), 81–93.
  2. Frank M. Richter, David B. Rowley, and Donald J. De Paolo, “Sr Isotope Evolution of Seawater: The Role of Tectonics,” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 109, nos. 1–2 (March 1992): 11–23, doi:10.1016/0012-821X(92)90070-C; Sambuddha Misra and Phillip N. Froelich, “Lithium Isotope History of Cenozoic Seawater: Changes in Silicate Weathering and Reverse Weathering,” Science 335, no. 6070 (February 17, 2012): 818–823, doi:10.1126/science.1214697.
  3. Heiko Pälike et al., “A Cenozoic Record of the Equatorial Pacific Carbonate Compensation Depth,” Nature 488 (August 30, 2012): 609–614, doi:10.1038/nature11360; Siobhan M. Campbell et al., “Effects of Dynamic Topography on the Cenozoic Carbonate Compensation Depth,” Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 19, no. 4 (April 2018): 1025–1034, doi:10.1002/2017GC007386.
  4. William W. Hay, James L. Sloan II, and Christopher N. Wold, “Mass/Age Distribution and Composition of Sediments on the Ocean Floor and the Global Rate of Sediment Subduction,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 93, no. B12 (December 10, 1988): 14933–14940, doi:10.1029/JB093iB12p14933; Peter Molnar, “Late Cenozoic Increase in Accumulation Rates of Terrestrial Sediment: How Might Climate Change Have Affected Erosion Rates?,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 32 (May 19, 2004): 67–89, doi:10.1146/annurev.earth.32.091003.143456.
  5. Frédéric Herman et al., “Worldwide Acceleration of Mountain Erosion under a Cooling Climate,” Nature 504 (December 19, 2013): 423–426, doi:10.1038/nature12877.
  6. Shilei Li, Steven L. Goldstein, and Maureen E. Raymo, “Neogene Continental Denudation and the Beryllium Conundrum,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 118, no. 42 (October 19, 2021): id. e2026456118, doi:10.1073/pnas.2026456118.
  7. Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016); Hugh Ross, Weathering Climate Change (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2020); Hugh Ross, Designed to the Core (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2022).

About The Author

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. I also am eager to equip Christians to engage, rather than withdraw from or attack, educated non-Christians. One of the approaches I’ve developed, with the help of my RTB colleagues, is a biblical creation model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive. I enjoy constructively integrating all 66 books of the Bible with all the science disciplines as a way to discover and apply deeper truths. 1 Peter 3:15–16 sets my ministry goal, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or "quasars," some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe. Not all of Hugh's discoveries involved astrophysics. Prompted by curiosity, he studied the world’s religions and "holy books" and found only one book that proved scientifically and historically accurate: the Bible. Hugh started at religious "ground zero" and through scientific and historical reality-testing became convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God! When he went on to describe for others his journey to faith in Jesus Christ, he was surprised to discover how many people believed or disbelieved without checking the evidence. Hugh's unshakable confidence that God's revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict became his unique message. Wholeheartedly encouraged by family and friends, communicating that message as broadly and clearly as possible became his mission. Thus, in 1986, he founded science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB). He and his colleagues at RTB keep tabs on the frontiers of research to share with scientists and nonscientists alike the thrilling news of what's being discovered and how it connects with biblical theology. In this realm, he has written many books, including: The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos, Beyond the Cosmos, A Matter of Days, Creation as Science, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory. Between writing books and articles, recording podcasts, and taking interviews, Hugh travels the world challenging students and faculty, churches and professional groups, to consider what they believe and why. He presents a persuasive case for Christianity without applying pressure. Because he treats people's questions and comments with respect, he is in great demand as a speaker and as a talk-radio and television guest. Having grown up amid the splendor of Canada's mountains, wildlife, and waterways, Hugh loves the outdoors. Hiking, trail running, and photography are among his favorite recreational pursuits - in addition to stargazing. Hugh lives in Southern California with his wife, Kathy, and two sons.



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