Paleoclimatologists employ a wide variety of techniques to deduce ancient climates.Ice:Mountain Glaciers and the polar ice caps/ice sheets are a widely employed source of data in paleoclimatology. Recent ice coring projects in the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica have yielded data going back several hundred thousand years -- over 800,000 years in the case of the EPICA project.
On a longer time scale, geologists must refer to the sedimentary record for data.Sedimentary content:
Our knowledge of precise climatic events decreases as we go further back in time. Some notable events are noted below, with a timescale for context.
The very early atmosphere of the earth contained mostly carbon dioxide (CO2) : about 80%. This gradually dropped to about 20% by 3,500 Ma. This coincides with the development of the first bacteria about 3,500 Ma. By the time of the development of photosynthesis (2,700 Ma), CO2 levels in the atmosphere were in the range of 15%. During the period from about 2,700 Ma to about 2,000 Ma, photosynthesis dropped the CO2 concentrations from about 15% to about 8%. By about 2,000 Ma free O2 was beginning to accumulate. This gradual reduction in CO2 levels continued to about 600 Ma at which point CO2 levels were below 1% and O2 levels had risen to more than 15%. 600Ma corresponds to the end of the Precambrian and the beginning of the Cambrian, the end of the cryptozoic and the beginning of the Phanerozic, and the beginning of oxygen-breathing life.
The climate of the late Precambrian was typically cold with glaciation spreading over much of the earth. At this time. the continents were bunched up in a supercontinent called Rodinia. Massive deposits of tillites are found and anomalous isotopic signatures are found which are consistent with the idea that the earth at this time was a massive snowball. Map of Rodinia at the end of the Precambrian after Australia and Antarctica rotated away from the southern hemisphere.
As the Proterozoic Eon drew to a close, the Earth started to warm up. By the dawn of the Cambrian and the Phanerozoic Eon, Earth was experiencing average global temperatures of about +22 °C. Hundreds of millions of years of ice were replaced with the balmy tropical seas of the Cambrian Period within which life exploded at a rate never seen before or after.
Qualitatively, the Earth's climate has varied between conditions that support large-scale continental glaciation and those which are extensively tropical and lack permanent ice caps even at the poles. The time scale for this variation is roughly 140 million years and may be related to Earth's motion into and out of galactic spiral arms (Veizer and Shaviv 2003). The difference in global mean temperatures between a fully glacial earth and ice free Earth is estimated at approximately 10 °C, though far larger changes would be observed at high latitudes and smaller ones at low latitudes. One key requirement for the development of large scale ice sheets is the arrangement of continental land masses at or near the poles. With plate tectonics constantly rearranging the continents, it can also shape long-term climate evolution. However, the presence of land masses at the poles is not sufficient to guarantee glaciations. Evidence exists of past warm periods in Earth's climate when polar land masses similar to Antarctica were home to deciduous forests rather than ice sheets.
Changes in the atmosphere may also exert an important influence over climate change. The establishment of CO2-consuming (and oxygen-producing) photosythesizing organisms in the Precambrian led to the production of an atmosphere much like today's, though for most of this period it was much higher in CO2 than today. Similarly, the Earth's average temperature was also frequently higher than at present, though it has been argued that over very long time scales climate is largely decoupled from carbon dioxide variations (Veizer et al. 2000). Or more specifically that changing continental configurations and mountain building probably have a larger impact on climate than carbon dioxide. Others dispute this, and suggest that the variations of temperature in response to carbon dioxide changes have been underestimated (Royer et al. 2004). However, it is clear that the preindustrial atmosphere with only 280 ppm CO2 is not far from the lowest ever occurring since the rise of macroscopic life.
Superimposed on the long-term evolution between hot and cold climates have been many short-term fluctuations in climate similar to, and sometimes more severe than, the varying glacial and interglacial states of the present ice age. Some of the most severe fluctuations, such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, may be related to rapid increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the collapse of natural methane reservoirs in the oceans (see methane clathrates). Severe climate changes also seem to have occurred during the course of the Cretaceous-Tertiary, Permian-Triassic, and Ordovician-Silurian extinction events; however, it is unclear to what degree these changes caused the extinctions rather than merely responding to other processes that may have been more directly responsible for the extinctions.
Note in the graphic on the right the strong 120,000 year periodicity of the cycles, and the striking asymmetry of the curves. This asymmetry is believed to result from complex interactions of feedback mechanisms. It has been observed that ice ages deepen by progressive steps, but the recovery to interglacial conditions occurs in one big step.
Geologically short-term (<120,000 year) temperatures are believed to be driven by orbital factors (see Milankovitch cycles). The arrangements of land masses on the Earth's surface are believed to reinforce these orbital forcing effects.
Continental drift obviously affects the thermohaline circulation, which transfers heat between the equatorial regions and the poles, as does the extent of polar ice coverage.
The timing of ice ages throughout geologic history is in part controlled by the position of the continental plates on the surface of the Earth. When landmasses are concentrated near the polar regions, there is an increased chance for snow and ice to accumulate. Small changes in solar energy can tip the balance between summers in which the winter snow mass completely melts and summers in which the winter snow persists until the following winter. See the web site Paleomap Project for images of the polar landmass distributions through time.
Comparisons of plate tectonic continent reconstructions and paleoclimatic studies show that the Milankovitch cycles have the greatest effect during geologic eras when landmasses have been concentrated in polar regions, as is the case today. Today, Greenland, Antarctica, and the northern portions of Europe, Asia, and North America are situated such that a minor change in solar energy will tip the balance between year-round snow/ice preservation and complete summer melting. The presence of snow and ice is a well-understood positive feedback mechanism for climate. The Earth today is considered to be prone to ice age glaciations.
Another proposed factor in long term temperature change is the Uplift-Weathering Hypothesis, first put forward by T. C. Chamberlin in 1899 and later independently proposed in 1988 by Maureen Raymo and colleagues, where upthrusting mountain ranges expose minerals to weathering resulting in their chemical conversion to carbonates thereby removing CO2 from the atmosphere and cooling the earth. Others have proposed similar effects due to changes in average water table levels and consequent changes in sub-surface biological activity and PH levels.
Over the very long term the energy output of the sun has gradually increased, on the order of 5% per billion (109) years, and will continue to do so until it reaches the end of its current phase of stellar evolution.