Ice cores suggest 16th century pandemics may have caused declines in atmospheric CO2

A pandemic-driven population decline in the 16th century may have led to declines in atmospheric CO2 levels, according to international researchers, who used ice cores from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to determine the CO2 levels between 1454–1688 CE. They found that CO2 levels decreased gradually between 1516–1670 CE by 0.5 parts per million (ppm) per decade, and suggest the gradual decline may be associated with land use changes in the Americas following pandemic-driven population decreases caused by contact between the Old World of Europe and the New World of the Americas during the 16th century. 

Journal/conference: Nature Communications

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41467-024-45894-9

Organisation/s: British Antarctic Survey, UK

Funder: This work was primarily funded by an Antarctic Science International
Bursary held by A.C.F.K. and additionally supported by Royal Society
Grants URF\R1\180366 and RGF\EA\181047 held by T.K.B. and an Isaac
Newton Trust award to R.H.R. The collection of the Skytrain Ice Rise core
was funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020
research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 742224,
WACSWAIN) held by E.W.W.

Media release

From: Springer Nature

Earth sciences: Old Antarctic ice may provide new insights into past CO2 levels *IMAGES* 

Changes in human activity may have led to atmospheric CO2 levels declining in the 16th century, owing to large-scale land use changes in the Americas during New World-Old World contact between 1450–1700 CE, suggests a Nature Communications paper. The findings are based on data from the an Antarctic ice core, dated up to about 500 years old.

Human activity is known to have led to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels owing to industrialization, but this may also be the case prior to industrialization. One example of this was during contact between the ‘Old World’ (in this case, Europe) and the ‘New World’ (the Americas) during the 16th century, which led to a pandemic-driven population decrease. This may have resulted in large-scale land abandonment, allowing for vegetation regrowth, carbon reabsorption from the atmosphere, and reduced atmospheric CO2 levels. Ice core records of CO2 throughout the last 2,000 years provide context for the unprecedented anthropogenic rise in atmospheric CO2. However, the atmospheric history of CO2 remains uncertain during some time periods, such as around 1600 CE.

Amy King and colleagues measured CO2 levels in the Skytrain ice core, which was drilled in 2018-2019, located at the edge of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, at depths of up to 104 meters deep that dated to 1454–1688 CE. They found that CO2 levels decreased gradually between 1516–1670 CE by 0.5 parts per million (ppm) per decade, with an inferred land carbon sink of 2.6 petagrams of carbon (PgC) per decade. The authors suggest that this gradual decline is well-aligned with modelled CO2 decline owing to land use changes in the Americas following New World contact with the Old World in the 16th century.

The authors suggest that ice core records can be used to provide context for how humans affected the composition of the atmosphere before industrialization.


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