Sample Undergraduate Geology Literature Review

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Potential Links Between Continental Rifting, CO2 Degassing, And Climate Change

1. Introduction

In recent years the primary driving force of CO2 in the atmosphere is human activity around the globe. However, the earth has transformed from a greenhouse to icehouse conditions long before human life exists. Hence, the question arises that there is more to CO2 emission around the globe other than human negligence.

As per the research of the University of Sydney’s EarthByte Group in collaboration with the German research center for geosciences, the changes in the continental lifecycle are the key driver of CO2 emission and climate change over the years (Sydney Informatics Hub, 2017). Around the world, the concentration of CO2 is increasing gradually and is deemed to be the key influential factor of climatic changes.

A significant amount of CO2 is being emitted by continental rifts, suggesting that deep carbon fluxes and climate change have been influenced by the extent of spatial and temporal rift through the geological time frame.

One of the best studied examples of this dilemma is the continental breakups in the East African Rifts. The crust stretches and splits, releasing a significant CO2 in the atmosphere (Corti, 2009). Hence, this chapter would provide a significant literary work to back the findings of the research topic.

2. Outline Research History

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, being a greenhouse gas, has played a vital role in regulating the climate through the earth’s history. The global carbon cycles control the amount of carbon entering the earth’s atmosphere from the vast stores of carbon in the subsurface.

To track and monitor the movement of carbon dioxide from the earth’s subsurface; scientists have recognized continental rift zones, which are the long cracks that are formed in the continental plates when they are stretched, to play a pivotal role in the contribution of excessive CO2 in the atmosphere and climate change over the history.

According to Garzanti et al. (2013), the effect on the climatical changes from continental has started from 200 million years ago due to the breaking of the singular continent Pangaea.

2.1 Continental Lithosphere

According to the study of Foley & Fischer (2017), the continental lithosphere is a massive stock of carbon in the earth’s sub-surface. The episodic freezing and re-melting has added and reactivated the carbon in the subsurface throughout geological history.

The earth has been said to have huge reserves of carbon, estimated to be 10²¹ -10²³ moles. However, the extent of carbon transfer in the earth’s atmosphere is uncertain and needed extensive examination to provide a data framework to understand the extent of carbon emission from this subsurface. The figure helps to understand the number of carbon fluxes in the earth’s atmosphere.

The global deep carbon cycle on the modern Earth

Figure 1: The global deep carbon cycle on the modern Earth

Source: (Brune, Williams & Müller, 2017)

2.2 Supercontinent Cycles and Palaeoclimate

The length of continental drifts has changed for a long time in geological history due to the dispersal of continents. In today’s world, the East African rift is one-fifth of the total continental rift of the supercontinent after its breakup; according to (Nance, Murphy, and Santosh (2014), supercontinent is an assembly of today’s seven continent as a single landmass, which is notable as Pangaea, Gondwana and Lauras. In accordance with his study, supercontinents have been gathered and disseminated several times in the world’s geological history.

According to geologists, the breaking of the supercontinent has led to the emission of huge amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, which led to the increase in the overall climate of the earth, making the end of the ice age (Self, Schmidt & Mather, 2014).

The CO2 emission due to Continental rifts at the time of supercontinent breakup had a greater effect than on the oceanic environment due to the huge carbon reserves in the lithosphere and was directly released in the atmosphere due to subaerial volcanism, which is rich in carbonate minerals.

The CO2 degassing from the earth’s subsurface from the continental rifts during the time of supercontinent break up has greater relevance to the change in climate over the timescale. The release of carbon dioxide from the basaltic volcanism is greater than the anticipated amount. Thus, the mechanism of continental rifts has a great impact on global warming, which is being controlled by tectonics.

Source: (Misachi, 2018)

Source: (Misachi, 2018)

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2.3 Continental Rifting and Changing Climate

The distribution of carbon on earth is vastly unstable. The carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, biosphere, and ocean combined is just one hundred thousands of the total carbon on earth, where the rest is bounded in the deep tectonics of earth. Nevertheless, these enormous amounts of CO2 reserves are not detached from the earth’s atmosphere completely.

There has been a constant exchange of this greenhouse gas in the long history of the earth (Young, 2013). The deep mantles of the earth are rich in CO2, and the tectonic plates that sink into these mantles suck in a great amount of CO2 from it. Moreover, it is also believed that volcanism in the deep oceanic ridges is also one reason for carbon release.

In the recent study of Renaut et al. (2013), there has been a great amount of evidence presented which states that although the volcanic activity in the deep sea is one of the reasons for CO2 release, the main contributor of CO2 emission in earth’s atmosphere is the continental rifts such as that of East African rift or the Eger rift situated in the Czech Republic.

According to Oreskes (2018), continental rifts stretch the continental lithosphere, which breaks the plate inside the crust.  The study of Brune, Williams & Müller (2017) states that the East African rifts, which extend to a length of 6000 km is currently the largest rift, but is much smaller than the rifts of Pangaea millions of years ago.

However, according to research, the breaking of tectonic plates and continental rifting moved the world from Ice age to Greenland age due to the emission of greenhouse gas that is CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. In recent times, these carbon cycle models have greatly affected the CO2 degassing from the rifts. In both the period, there is a high correlation of CO2 concentration due to continental rifting.

2.4 Climatic Impact of Carbon Emission

The emission of greenhouse house gases like carbon dioxide has increases at a significant rate for the past couple of centuries. The greater part of this emission is the introduction of industrialized era in which fossil fuels were burnt to produce energy. It is known as carbon emission through human activity. Apart from this, concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is also caused by global carbon cycle.

This natural concentration results from carbon fluxes through earth’s land, oceanic volcanism and plant’s photosynthesis process. All of which leads to natural carbon emission in atmosphere. According to the study of Nehren et al (2013), carbon emission in earth’s atmosphere has increased by 42% in the time of 1992 till 2010.

There is a constant increase in natural imbalance between greenhouse gas emissions and natural processes to absorb it, increasing the overall carbon concentration on earth. The result of this high concentration of CO2 results in the increases of overall temperature on earth.

The increase in temperature then results in unforeseen changes in natural order, including precipitation patterns, storm severity, and increase in sea level and natural disasters around the globe (Kämpf et al., 2013). Thus, CO2 emission from the continental rifts is of the same severity towards global warming as human activities in the industrialized era.

3. Recent Developments

Alferd Wegener, a German climatologist has been credited immensely for his work towards tectonic plates and its fundamental link towards climatic changes (Oreskes, 2018). He speculated in his work that polar land areas would cool off the carbon affected earth which is created due to this tectonic displacement.

Today, it is acknowledged that continental rifting that is the change and break in tectonic plates greatly impacts climatic changes. These changes are direct or indirect calamities and include displacement of horizontal, vertical or both plates. Recent research from the EarthByte group has provided great evidence regarding the climatic changes resulting from the CO2 emission form continental drifts (Brune, Williams & Müller, 2017).

The researchers in the study used different computer simulations of supercontinent breakup and carbon cycle models to support their findings towards impact of continental drifts, resulting from deep crustal fault system towards carbon emission in earth’s atmosphere. The research provided a direct link of super continental cycles and fluctuations that impact greenhouse and icehouse climate on earth.

The study concluded on a note that stated that these tectonic break ups were the reason behind the ending of the pronounced ice age millions of years ago (Brune, Williams & Müller, 2017). Furthermore, these rifting may result in adverse climatic affect in the suture due to increased temperature resulting in global warming and natural calamities.

4. Future Research Areas

The future of this research field tends to possess future research gaps according to the extent of concentration resulting from reflux of carbon dioxide from earths subsurface. Though these CO2 emissions from rifts are fraction of emission produce by human, a detailed analysis for the future studies can be made to find whether these emission tends to increase in future resulting in the threat for the global climate and also giving the humans a period of numbers till these greenhouse emission will tend to destroy the ozone layer so that preventive measures can be taken in order restrict future consequences.


Brune, S., Williams, S. E., & Müller, R. D. (2017). Potential links between continental rifting, CO 2 degassing and climate change through time. Nature Geoscience, 10(12), 941.

Corti, G. (2009). Continental rift evolution: from rift initiation to incipient breakup in the Main Ethiopian Rift, East Africa. Earth-Science Reviews, 96(1-2), 1-53.

Foley, S. F., & Fischer, T. P. (2017). An essential role for continental rifts and lithosphere in the deep carbon cycle. Nature Geoscience, 10(12), 897

Garzanti, E., Padoan, M., Andò, S., Resentini, A., Vezzoli, G., & Lustrino, M. (2013). Weathering and relative durability of detrital minerals in equatorial climate: sand petrology and geochemistry in the East African Rift. The Journal of Geology, 121(6), 547-580.

Kämpf, H., Bräuer, K., Schumann, J., Hahne, K., & Strauch, G. (2013). CO2 discharge in an active, non-volcanic continental rift area (Czech Republic): characterisation (δ13C, 3He/4He) and diffuse and vent CO2 emissions quantification. Chemical Geology, 339, 71-83.

Misachi, J. (2018). What Was The Gondwana Supercontinent?. WorldAtlas. Retrieved 25 October 2018, from

Nance, R.D., Murphy, J.B. and Santosh, M., 2014. The supercontinent cycle: a retrospective essay. Gondwana Research, 25(1), pp.4-29.

Nehren, U.D.O., Kirchner, A., Sattler, D., Turetta, A.P. and HEINRICH, J., 2013. Impact of natural climate change and historical land use on landscape development in the Atlantic Forest of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 85(2), pp.497-518.

Oreskes, N., 2018. From continental drift to plate tectonics. In Plate Tectonics (pp. 27-52). CRC Press.

Renaut, R. W., Owen, R. B., Jones, B., TIERCELIN, J. J., Tarits, C., Ego, J. K., & Konhauser, K. O. (2013). Impact of lake‐level changes on the formation of thermogene travertine in continental rifts: evidence from Lake Bogoria, Kenya Rift Valley. Sedimentology, 60(2), 428-468

Self, S., Schmidt, A., & Mather, T. A. (2014). Emplacement characteristics, time scales, and volcanic gas release rates of continental flood basalt eruptions on earth. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 505

Sydney Informatics Hub. (2017). Continental breakup triggered massive CO2 emissions. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from

Young, G. M. (2013). Evolution of earth’s climatic system: Evidence from ice ages, isotopes, and impacts. GSA Today, 23(10), 4-10.

Frequently Asked Questions

To write an undergraduate level literature review:

  1. Define the research scope.
  2. Search and select relevant sources.
  3. Summarize and synthesize key findings.
  4. Organise by themes or trends.
  5. Provide critical analysis.
  6. Conclude by highlighting gaps and significance.