We Are Heading For The Warmest Climate In Half A Billion Years, Says New Study

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Danielle Andrew 06 Jul 2017, 14:55

Carbon dioxide concentrations are heading towards values not seen in the past 200m years. The sun has also been gradually getting stronger over time. Put together, these facts mean the climate may be heading towards warmth not seen in the past half a billion years.

A lot has happened on Earth since 500,000,000BC – continents, oceans and mountain ranges have come and gone, and complex life has evolved and moved from the oceans onto the land and into the air. Most of these changes occur on very long timescales of millions of years or more. However, over the past 150 years global temperatures have increased by about 1℃, ice caps and glaciers have retreated, polar sea-ice has melted, and sea levels have risen.

Some will point out that Earth’s climate has undergone similar changes before. So what’s the big deal?

Scientists can seek to understand past climates by looking at the evidence locked away in rocks, sediments and fossils. What this tells us is that yes, the climate has changed in the past, but the current speed of change is highly unusual. For instance, carbon dioxide hasn’t been added to the atmosphere as rapidly as today for at least the past 66m years.

In fact, if we continue on our current path and exploit all convention fossil fuels, then as well as the rate of CO₂ emissions, the absolute climate warming is also likely to be unprecedented in at least the past 420m years. That’s according to a new study we have published in Nature Communications.

Life in the planet’s last greenhouse period, the Eocene. Jay Matternes / Smithsonian MuseumCC BY
In terms of geological time, 1℃ of global warming isn’t particularly unusual. For much of its history the planet was significantly warmer than today, and in fact more often than not Earth was in what is termed a “greenhouse” climate state. During the last greenhouse state 50m years ago, global average temperatures were 10-15℃ warmer than today, the polar regions were ice-free, palm trees grew on the coast of Antarctica, and alligators and turtles wallowed in swamp-forests in what is now the frozen Canadian Arctic.

In contrast, despite our current warming, we are still technically in an “icehouse” climate state, which simply means there is ice on both poles. The Earth has naturally cycled between these two climate states every 300m years or so.

Just prior to the industrial revolution, for every million molecules in the atmosphere, about 280 of them were CO₂ molecules (280 parts-per-million, or ppm). Today, due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels, concentrations are about 400 ppm. In the absence of any efforts to curtail our emissions, burning of conventional fossil fuels will cause CO₂ concentrations to be around 2,000ppm by the year 2250.

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