Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Earth's Climate After 2030: Conditions Could Resemble Era 3 Million Years Ago, Scientists Predict

Climate
Colored composite image of Earth, showing surface temperature and 3-D cloud cover. R.B.HUSAR / NASA / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

By Tim Radford

Humankind, in two centuries, has transformed the climate. It has reversed a 50-million-year cooling trend.

Scientists conclude that the profligate combustion of fossil fuels could within three decades take planet Earth back to conditions that existed in the Pliocene three million years ago, an era almost ice-free and at least 1.8°C and possibly 3.6°C warmer than today.


But there is a much earlier warming precedent. The Eocene planet at its warmest 50 million years ago was perhaps 13°C warmer than it has been for almost all human history.

Its continents were differently configured, the Arctic was characterized by swampy forests that might have looked a little like the Louisiana bayous of the U.S., and the first mammals had begun to colonize the globe.

And then, steadily but unevenly, the globe began to cool towards a level comfortable for human evolution, and then much later to a level that permitted the birth of agriculture and the foundation of a civilization that fostered writing, music, poetry, scholarship and scientific skills capable of tracing the detailed history of the last 50 million years and at the same time projecting a changing future.

"We can use the past as a yardstick to understand the future, which is so different from anything we have experienced in our lifetime," said John Williams, a palaeo-ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"People have a hard time projecting what the world will be like in five or 10 years from now. This is a tool for predicting that—how we head down those paths, and using deep geologic analogues to think about changes in time."

Dr. Williams and his colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they compared the climate computer forecasts for the mean summer and winter world temperatures from 2020 to 2280, with historic and prehistoric warm periods over the last 50 million years.

And they identified a hotspot in the mid-Pliocene more than 3 million years ago as the best match for global climates after 2030.

They reason that if nations fulfill the promise made in Paris in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep average global warming to no more than 1.5°C above the levels for most of human history, then that is what global conditions will be like.

No Parallel

If, on the other hand, nations go on burning fossil fuels under the business-as-usual scenario, then by 2150 the world will be very like the early Eocene, 50 million years ago.

And if that is the case, at least 9 percent of the globe—including northern Australia, east and south-east Asia, and the coastal Americas—will experience what the scientists call "geologically novel climates": that is, conditions for which the past can offer no match at all.

It is a tenet of geology that the present is key to the past. If so, the past can also illuminate the future: what has happened before can happen again.

In the course of decades of careful study, climate scientists have identified examples of mass extinction and catastrophic climate change from the Cretaceous and the Permian and even the late Carboniferous, when so much carbon dioxide was taken from the atmosphere and buried as fossil plant material that the planet almost became a snowball.

More directly, change in the past has repeatedly provided increasingly urgent warnings for the near future.

Human Flourishing Ended

So cogent have been the warnings from the distant past that researchers argue that the epoch in which modern humans flourished—geologists call it the Holocene—effectively came to an end midway through the 20th century.

What initially provided a safe operating space for emerging humanity will, they think, become known as the Anthropocene, because human activity has now so dramatically changed the climate, the landscape and the conditions under which other lifeforms flourish.

"The further we move from the Holocene, the greater we move out of safe operating space," professor Williams said.

"In the roughly 20 to 25 years I have been working in the field, we have gone from expecting climate change to happen, to detecting its effects, and now we are seeing it is causing harm.

"People are dying, property is being damaged, we're seeing intensified fires and intensified storms that can be attributed to climate change."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Lit candles, flowers and signs are seen in front of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland on May 31, 2020. Aleksander Kalka / NurPhoto / Getty Images

As protests are taking place across our nation in response to the killing of George Floyd, we want to acknowledge the importance of this protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the years, we've aimed to be sensitive and prioritize stories that highlight the intersection between racial and environmental injustice. From our years of covering the environment, we know that too often marginalized communities around the world are disproportionately affected by environmental crises.

Read More Show Less
Sockeye salmon are seen swimming at a fish farm. Natalie Fobes / Getty Images

By Peter Beech

Using waste food to farm insects as fish food and high-tech real-time water quality monitoring: innovations that could help change global aquaculture, were showcased at the World Economic Forum's Virtual Ocean Dialogues 2020.

Read More Show Less
Shanika Reaux walks through the devastated Lower Ninth Ward on May 10, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana, after her home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Mario Tama / Getty Images

The big three broadcast channels failed to cover the disproportionate impacts of extreme weather on low-income communities or communities of color during their primetime coverage of seven hurricanes and one tropical storm over three years, a Media Matters for America analysis revealed.

Read More Show Less
Several drugmakers and research institutions are working on vaccines, antivirals and other treatments to help people infected with COVID-19. krisanapong detraphiphat / Moment / Getty Images

Researchers at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly announced yesterday that it will start a trial on a new drug designed specifically for COVID-19, a milestone in the race to stop the infectious disease, according to STAT News.

Read More Show Less
The Sumatran rhino is one of 515 endangered species of land animals on the brink of extinction. Mark Carwardine / Photolibrary / Getty Images

The sixth mass extinction is here, and it's speeding up.

Read More Show Less
People are having a hard time trying to understand what information is reliable and what information they can trust. Aekkarak Thongjiew / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Cathy Cassata

With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.

They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Workers clean up a crude oil leak from a pipeline in Minnesota in 2002. JOEY MCLEISTER / Star Tribune via Getty Images

The Trump administration has finalized a rule making it harder for states and tribal communities to block pipelines and other infrastructure projects that threaten waterways.

Read More Show Less