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Climate Change

Published on April 10th, 2019 | by Steve Hanley


Study Finds Earth’s Atmosphere Is Strongly Sensitive To Small Changes In Carbon Dioxide Levels

April 10th, 2019 by  

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says its latest computer models reveal that small changes in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere correlate strongly to periods of higher and lower average global temperatures. Based on an analysis of ocean sediments, it says the last time CO2 levels were this high was 3 million years ago during the Pliocene Era when ocean levels were 60 feet higher than they are today and both poles were covered in forests.

Breakthrough Based On Analyzing Ocean Sediments

“We know from the analysis of sediments on the bottom of our seas about past ocean temperatures and ice volumes, but so far the role of CO2 changes in shaping the glacial cycles has not been fully understood,” says Matteo Willeit of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, lead author of the study now published recently in Science Advances.

“It is a breakthrough that we can now show in computer simulations that changes in CO2 levels were a main driver of the ice ages, together with variations of how the Earth orbits around the sun, the so-called Milankovitch cycles. These are actually not just simulations: we compared our results with the hard data from the deep sea, and they prove to be in good agreement. Our results imply a strong sensitivity of the Earth system to relatively small variations in atmospheric CO2. As fascinating as this is, it is also worrying.

“It seems we’re now pushing our home planet beyond any climatic conditions experienced during the entire current geological period, the Quaternary, a period that started almost 3 million years ago and saw human civilization beginning only 11,000 years ago. So, the modern climate change we see is big, really big even by standards of Earth history,” says Willeit.

Sea Levels Were Once 60 Feet Higher

The Pliocene was a “proper analogy,” Martin Siegert, a geophysicist and climate-change scientist at Imperial College London, tells The Guardian. “The headline news is the temperatures are 3-4º C higher and sea levels are 15-20 meters higher than they are today. The indication is that there is no Greenland ice sheet any more, no West Antarctic ice sheet and big chunks of East Antarctic [ice sheet] taken.”

Co-author Andrey Ganopolski says, “The fact that the model can reproduce the main features of the observed climate history gives us confidence in our general understanding of how the climate system works. The simulations we develop have to be simple enough to allow for thousands of calculation runs of many thousands of years, and yet have to capture the critical factors that drive our climate. This is what we have achieved. And it is confirming how outstandingly important changes in CO2 levels are for Earth’s climate.”

Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey, tells The Guardian, “This is an amazing discovery. They found fossil leaves of southern beech. I call them the last forests of Antarctica. They were growing at 400 ppm CO2, so this may be where we are going back to, with ice sheets melting at times, which may allow plants to colonize again. We know that is where the change happens first and where it is most dramatic.”

The Idiocy Of William Happer

Princeton professor William Happer, who is now a science adviser to the Tramp administration, says carbon dioxide is good for growing plants. Martin Siegert agrees, pointing out that during the Cretaceous period 100 million years ago,  CO2 levels reached 1,000 ppm. Antarctica was 25º C warmer than today and was covered in great forests.

“If we keep carbon emissions going at the current rate, by the end of the century we will have 1,000 ppm,” he says. The amount of carbon dioxide actually fell to 280 ppm prior to the start of the industrial revolution. That was because all that vegetation removed it from the atmosphere and sequestered in all those plants that Happer loves so much and then was buried. “It formed coal seams, gas and oil fields. And what we have been doing for the last 150 years is digging it all up and putting it back into the atmosphere. It’s crazy.”

So hooray for William Happer. If we take the long view, there is absolutely nothing to worry about because the Earth will restore itself in 40 or 50 million years. Sadly, however, every living thing on the planet will dead and buried long before then. Let us fervently hope the next species to preside over the Earth is not as intellectually deficient as Dr. Happer or else the whole process will begin anew. One thing we know for sure is that no descendants of William Happer will be around to celebrate his perspicacity and erudition.

Perhaps on some future date millions of years from now, archaeologists will unearth a Chevy Suburban or a Ford F-150 and announce the mystery of why humans failed to survive has been solved. Presumably by then transportation will no longer rely on fossil fuels and automakers won’t still be whining about how nobody wants to buy an electric car. 


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. His motto is, "Life is not measured by how many breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away!" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

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