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MIT Geologists Rock Climate Science, Discover Earth's Slow-Motion Shield Against Global Warming

MIT Geologists Rock Climate Science, Discover Earth's Slow-Motion Shield Against Global WarmingSource: Wikipedia/ID. McKee, E.D. 316, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mitch M. Rosenthal
Published on December 01, 2023

In a groundbreaking discovery with massive implications for climate science, MIT geologists have revealed that a clay mineral known as smectite, a byproduct of the tireless churning beneath the Earth’s crust, acts as a natural vault for carbon, potentially providing Earth with a slow-moving defense against the scourge of global warming, as per MIT report.

The team at MIT, led by graduate student Joshua Murray and his advisor, Professor Oliver Jagoutz, focused their lens on smectite's structure, which is akin to an accordion, positing that these microscopic pleats are adept at entrapping organic carbon. This carbon would otherwise be consumed by microbes, released as carbon dioxide, and exacerbate the greenhouse effect. In a phenomenon that takes millions of years to manifest its chilling effects, these clays are fingered as a factor in ushering major ice ages, following massive tectonic upheavals in Earth’s prehistoric past.

According to the MIT report, smectite comes into existence when oceanic and continental plates collide, eventually making its way back to the sea bed and commencing its carbon-trapping mission. This finding indicates the first time scientists have solidly linked plate tectonics and ice ages through carbon-trapping minerals, thus providing a new window into the complexities of global cooling mechanisms.

Despite being a natural process, the mitigation effect of these clays on human-induced carbon emissions is in stark contrast to the magnitude and pace of current global warming. The research suggests that these clays are a natural, plodding buffer in the face of human-driven climate change. Murray said to MIT News, “There may even be a modern application for these clays in offsetting some of the carbon that humanity has placed into the atmosphere.”

Digging into historical geological records, the research team, armed with an array of simulations and analyses, identified spikes in nickel and chromium.  Murray explained, "We found that you really don't need much of this material to have a huge effect on the climate."

This research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

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