French-Australian collaboration produces super-accurate simulation of 100 million years of Earth’s history

A new digital tool developed by French and Australian scientists provides a high resolution overview of the last 100 million years of Earth’s geological history.

It also affords a snapshot view of history to come.

The collaborative research between the University of Sydney and Institut des Sciences de la Terre, France, plugs a gap in understanding the relationship between river basins and oceans.

As erosion and sediment deposits in outflows from rivers to oceans take place, the geodynamic, tectonic and climatic inputs to their new model allows scientists to witness the changing face of the planet over 100 million years, with each frame equivalent to a million years of change.

Study lead Dr Tristan Salle suggests the research will enhance marine environment knowledge when comparing current changes in ocean chemistry to historic record. It’s also likely to aid other fields in testing theories on how geological changes over time influence biochemical and evolutionary cycles.

Tectonic timelapse

“The Earth’s surface is the living skin of our planet,” Salle says.

“It sets the boundary between biological, chemical and geological systems and it’s evolving very rapidly, but also, it provides a framework for understanding the evolution of the carbon cycle [and] to understand the effect of landscape on the evolution of life.

“The idea of being able to simulate the evolution of the surface over a hundred million years has some really important consequences for understanding the different aspects of the system. “

Tristan salles from the school of geosciences at the university of sydney.
Dr Tristan Salles from the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney. Credit: Stefanie Zingsheim

As rainfall influences sediment and nutrient flow over millions of years, the planet’s surface and the ecosystems living on land and in the oceans are reshaped. These changes also influence the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as new organisms appear, old ones disappear, and their habitats are transformed.

Understanding these changes could also give context to scientists seeking to understand current climate patterns.

The model developed by Salle and his colleagues starts with present-day conditions and adds information from the fossil record to look back in time. Salle says by looking to the past to understand the present, scientists will be able to take their modelled data and enhance understanding of several processes, including the carbon cycle.

“The underlying physics that is put in the model is something that is going to be valid if we look at a very long period of time, several millions of years,” Salle says.

“Another aspect of what we’re trying to do now is to try to better characterise the amount of sediment stored in land, versus the amount that is going to be delivered to the ocean, and this will give us some idea about the nutrient cycles and also the potential weathering effect of this material that is stored.

“It will give us some idea about CO2 sequestration and maybe a better understand of the CO2 cycle.”

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