New Study Proposes Past Parallel for Current Climate Change


A new study coming out in today's issue of Science argues that a period of warming 55 million years ago may provide a parallel for the current climate crisis. Lead researcher Mark Pagani, associate professor of geology and geophysics at Yale, and team claim in their paper that massive releases of greenhouse gases triggered many of the same changes in land and ocean ecology that we're beginning to see in our own environment. According to,

Known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), the period was marked by a rapid rise in greenhouse gases that heated Earth by roughly 9° F (5° C), in less than 10,000 years. The climate warming caused widespread changes including mass extinction in the world's oceans due to acidification and shifts of plant communities due to changes in rainfall. The era helped set the stage for the "Age of Mammals," which included the first appearance of modern primates.

The research, based on fossil records of terrestrial plants and oceanic plankton, suggests that the world's climate is highly sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, finding that a doubling of CO2 concentrations can raise global temperatures by at least 4 ºF (2.2 ºC). Current projections show that natural background atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are expected to double around mid-century due to fossil fuel combustion.

"We can tell that the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere and ocean was more or less the same as what is available today as coal, oil, and gas," said Dr. Ken Caldeira, co-author of the study and a researcher at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University in California. "The carbon heated up the Earth for over 100,000 years. If the climate was as insensitive to CO2 as the climate skeptics claim, there would be no way to make the Earth so warm for so long."

The scientists admit that they're not as certain about what caused such a release of gases, and include "...massive fires burning coal and other plant material or ... "burps" of methane released from frozen hydrate deposits on the continental shelves" as possible drivers of the changes that occurred. Critics are certain to argue "there were no SUVs then"; they'll have a much tougher time, though, making claims along the lines of "Carbon dioxide... we call it life."

Image via Global Warming Art