changing earth’s climate
The history of humanity—from the initial appearance of genus Homo over 2,000,000 years ago to the advent and expansion of the modern human species (Homo sapiens) Beginning some 150,000 years ago—is integrally linked to climate variation and change. Homo sapiens has experienced nearly two full glacial-interglacial cycles, but its global geographical expansion, massive population increase, cultural diversification, and worldwide ecological domination began only during the last glacial period and accelerated during the last glacial-interglacial transition. The first bipedal apes appeared in a time of climatic transition and variation, and Homo erectus, an extinct species possibly ancestral to modern humans, originated during the colder Pleistocene Epoch and survived both the transition period and multiple glacial-interglacial cycles. Thus, it can be said that climate variation has been the midwife of humanity and its various cultures and civilizations.
How do we look into Earth’s past climate?
It takes a little creativity to reconstruct Earth’s past incarnations. Fortunately, scientists know the main natural factors that shape climate. They include volcanic eruptions whose ash blocks the sun, changes in Earth’s orbit that shift sunlight to different latitudes, circulation of oceans and sea ice, the layout of the continents, the size of the ozone hole, blasts of cosmic rays, and deforestation. Of these, the most important are greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat, particularly carbon dioxide and methane.
As Carson noted, Earth records these changes in its landscapes: in geologic layers, fossil trees, fossil shells, even crystallized rat pee—anything really old that gets preserved. Scientists can open up these diary pages and ask them what was going on at that time. Tree rings are particularly diligent record-keepers, recording rainfall in their annual rings; ice cores can keep exquisitely detailed accounts of seasonal conditions going back nearly a million years.
Ice cores reveal annual layers of snowfall, volcanic ash, and even remnants of long-dead civilizations
What else can an ice core tell us?
“Wow, there’s so much,” says Alley, who spent five field seasons coring ice from the Greenland ice sheet. Consider what an ice core is: a cross-section of layers of snowfall going back millennia.
When snow blankets the ground, it contains small air spaces filled with atmospheric gases. At the poles, older layers become buried and compressed into ice, turning these spaces into bubbles of past air, as researchers Caitlin Keating-Bitonti and Lucy Chang write in Smithsonian.com. Scientists use the chemical composition of the ice itself (the ratio of the heavy and light isotopes of oxygen in H2O) to estimate temperature. In Greenland and Antarctica, scientists like Alley extract inconceivably long ice cores—some more than two miles long!
Ice cores tell us how much snow fell during a particular year. But they also reveal dust, sea salt, ash from faraway volcanic explosions, even the pollution left by Roman plumbing. “If it’s in the air it’s in the ice,” says Alley. In the best cases, we can date ice cores to their exact season and year, counting up their annual layers like tree rings. And ice cores preserve these exquisite details going back hundreds of thousands of years, making them what Alley calls “the gold standard” of paleoclimate proxies.
Paleoclimate shows us that Earth’s climate has changed dramatically. Doesn’t that mean that, in a relative sense, today’s changes aren’t a big deal?
When Richard Alley tries to explain the gravity of manmade climate change, he often invokes a particular annual phenomenon: the wildfires that blaze in the hills of Los Angeles every year. These fires are predictable, cyclical, natural. But it’d be crazy to say that, since fires are the norm, it’s fine to let arsonists set fires too. Similarly, the fact that climate has changed over millions of years doesn’t mean that manmade greenhouse gases aren’t a serious global threat.
“Our civilization is predicated on a stable climate and sea level,” says Wing, “and everything we know from the past says that when you put a lot of carbon in the atmosphere, climate and sea-level change radically.”
Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have helped warm the globe 2 degrees F, one-quarter of what Schmidt deems an “Ice Age Unit”—the temperature change that the Earth goes through between an Ice Age and a non-Ice Age. Today’s models predict another 2 to 6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100—at least 20 times faster than past bouts of warming over the past 2 million years.
Of course, there are uncertainties: “We could have a debate about whether we’re being a little too optimistic or not,” says Alley. “But not much debate about whether we’re being too scary or not.” Considering how right we were before; we should ignore history at our peril.