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Rapid Climate Change

New evidence shows that earth's climate can change dramatically in only a decade. Could greenhouse gases flip that switch?

Kendrick Taylor

Over the course of geologic history, the earth's environment has been far from static. Indeed, 600 million years ago the atmosphere lacked sufficient oxygen to support animal life. More recently, as shown by sediments recording conditions over the past 500,000 years, the planet's climate varied between at least two different states.

The record from the past 150,000 years is particularly well preserved, offering details about these repeated climate changes. Between about 131,000 and 114,000 years ago there was a warm period like today's climate, referred to in Europe as the Eemian or globally as Marine Isotope Stage 5e. This was followed by the Wisconsin ice age, which ended about 12,000 years ago when the current relatively warm Holocene period began.

Figure 1. Although earth’s climate . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Although the past half-million years constitutes the current-events period in geologic time, on a human time scale the events I just described are in the distant past. Because their time scales are so long, I used to believe that changes in climate happened slowly and would never affect me. After all, a single climate cycle that includes an ice age and a warm period lasts 150,000 years and is controlled by gradually changing orbital parameters of the earth. It did not seem possible that climate cycles that lasted so long could change perceptibly during my lifetime. Even greenhouse-induced climate changes are normally predicted to happen gradually over several generations, allowing an opportunity for society to adapt.

My attitude changed profoundly while I was working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to develop a climate record for the past 110,000 years. By examining ice cores from Greenland, my colleagues and I determined that climate changes large enough to have extensive impacts on our society have occurred in less than 10 years. Now I know that our climate could change significantly in my lifetime. We are still a long way from being able to predict such a change, but we are getting closer to understanding how it might take place. A pressing concern is whether anthropogenic changes to our planet's atmosphere might perturb the climate's stability.

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