Abstract

Stellar evolution theory predicts large, long-term solar large, long-term solar luminosity (L⊙) changes over the lifetime of the sun. The most certain prediction is a general monotonic increase (neglecting short-period variations) in L⊙ of about 30% over the past 4.7 billion years, an increase that will continue. This prediction is well founded theoretically (based on the conversion of hydrogen into heavier elements) and supported observationally by the famous Hertzsprung-Russell diagram showing stellar evolution. If the solar luminosity increases monotonically with time, one might expect to find evidence of increasing surface temperatures in the Earth’s paleoclimatic record. Instead, isotopic indicators show Earth’s mean surface temperature is now significantly lower than it was 3 billion years ago. In 1975, R. K. Ulrich termed this the “faint young sun” paradox. Simultaneous solar luminosity increase and terrestrial temperature decrease imply additional strong influences on climate evolution. To understand climate evolution (and, by inference, the present climate), we must first determine the nature of these “compensatory mechanisms.” The positively increasing line in Figure 12.1 shows the evolution of solar luminosity (in units of present luminosity, L). Since terrestrial surface temperatures have remained nearly constant during the last 2.3 billion years, this requires a very effective compensatory mechanism. Several theories attempt to explain why the Earth’s surface temperature has remained relatively constant even while the solar luminosity has increased by 30%. Also, various scenarios have been advanced to explain why the Earth remained ice-free even during periods when the sun was much dimmer than it is today. Some of these ideas are: • Since it had fewer continents and more oceans, the early Earth was much darker. This same darker surface absorbed enough additional incoming solar radiation to remain ice-free. • In the past, energy transport from the equator to polar regions was easier because the continents had lower elevations. This enhanced heat transport allowed the Earth to remain relatively warm. • The early atmosphere had more carbon dioxide and methane, creating an enhanced greenhouse effect sufficient to trap the incoming solar radiation and keep the Earth warm. The enormous amount of carbon trapped in limestone suggests that Earth’s former atmosphere contained much more carbon dioxide than it does today.

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