Article image

How plants actively shaped Earth's climate cycle throughout history

Earth, our vibrant planet, has witnessed countless climatic shifts throughout its history, each one leaving an indelible mark on the landscape and the life it sustains. At the heart of this intricate dance between climate and life lie plants, the silent architects of Earth’s atmosphere and the key to understanding our planet’s response to the pressing issue of global warming.

As researchers delve deeper into the field of biogeodynamics, they uncover the fascinating interplay between vegetation and climate, revealing how Earth’s flora has not only adapted to changing conditions but also played an active role in shaping the very climate that sustains them.

Interplay of plant life and Earth’s climate

Julian Rogger, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics at ETH Zurich, is fascinated by the interplay of plant life and climate.

Earth is the only known planet in the universe capable of supporting living organisms, thanks to its climatic conditions that allow for the presence of liquid water. Rogger explains, “We’re trying to understand processes relevant to the present using the geological past.”

When the planet’s climate shifts, it impacts plant life, forcing ecosystems to evolve and adapt to changing conditions. “I’m interested in the role of life itself in the whole system,” Rogger says. “I find it really fascinating to reconstruct the world as it was millions of years ago.”

Plants as active participants in Earth’s climate cycle

In a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances, Rogger and colleagues from ETH and the University of Leeds argue that plants are not just passive participants in Earth’s climate cycle, but can play an important role in shaping it.

“We could assume life is just reacting to changes, but it’s also possible it’s interacting with the system and regulates it,” Rogger says.

Using computer models that simulate the interplay between climate change, continental movement, and plant life in the deep past, Rogger and his team have shown that plants likely help regulate the Earth’s atmosphere by trapping carbon and emitting oxygen, thus controlling CO2 levels.

They also accelerate the process of mineral weathering in soils, which consumes CO2. The models suggest that the planet’s climate and atmosphere are part of a feedback loop, with life itself playing a role in regulating or accelerating climatic changes.

Speed of climatic change is a critical factor

The speed of climatic change is a critical factor in determining the impact on plant life. When change is slow enough for plants to evolve or spread to new niches over millions of years, plant activity can act as a buffer, preventing temperatures from shifting too rapidly.

However, the geological record and fossil evidence show that there have been changes that occurred too quickly, resulting in major disruptions of vegetation and even mass extinctions.

“What we want to know is how fast vegetation is able to change its characteristics when the world suddenly gets 5 or 6 degrees warmer,” Rogger says. “The overall goal is to understand the co-evolution of climate, vegetation and tectonics.”

Modeling the past to understand the present

Rogger and his interdisciplinary team of geologists, computer scientists, and earth scientists created a computer model of the last 390 million years, taking into account the shifting of continents, climate, and vegetation’s response to these changes.

Running simulations on powerful supercomputers can take up to a month due to the complexity of the problem and the length of time they represent.

The team uses geological data, such as chemical analysis of sediments and fossils, to make the models as realistic as possible.

The models show that long periods of stability allow vegetation to flourish, absorbing CO2 and stabilizing the Earth’s climate over time. Plants were able to evolve fast enough to adjust to gradual shifts in climate and landscapes due to continental drift.

However, when the climate system is disrupted and changes too rapidly for vegetation to adapt, plants are wiped out and can’t act as a buffer to slow down shifts in climate.

“It’s like a feedback effect,” Rogger explains. “Because regulation falls away, you could have a stronger increase in CO2 and more climate change than was previously expected.”

Resilience of Earth’s ecosystems

At a time when the Earth’s climate is changing faster than ever before, Rogger’s research has practical implications. Information from the past can help us understand how resilient the Earth’s interlocking systems are.

“How fast are ecosystems able to respond to changes in the climate and landscape? That’s one of the major unknowns,” he says. “It’s an acute question – how resilient is the Earth?”

In summary, as we face the unprecedented pace of climate change today, Rogger’s research serves as a vital reminder of the intricate dance between life, plants and Earth’s climate.

By studying the past, we gain invaluable insights into the resilience of Earth’s ecosystems and their ability to adapt to changing conditions. This knowledge arms us with the tools to better understand and respond to the challenges we face in the present and future.

As we work to protect and preserve our planet’s delicate balance, we must remember that we are not mere spectators in Earth’s climate dance, but active participants with the power to shape its rhythm for generations to come.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day