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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

The Greenland Weather Report

In Greenland, annual ice layers are stacked up like thousands of annual weather reports. In 1982, a European and American team made the first attempt to read that record, by recovering an ice core from southern Greenland. Measurements on the ice core indicated that about 11,700 years ago the climate of the North Atlantic region changed from a dry and cold ice age to the current warmer and wetter Holocene. Altogether it took 1,500 years for the climate transition to be complete and a few thousand more years to melt most of the ice, but the surprise was that most of the transition occurred in only 40 years. This was only one record, and it came from a single 10-centimeter-diameter ice core. Still, this finding was impossible to ignore and too puzzling to comprehend.

Figure 5. Ocean core shows a rapid change . . .Click to Enlarge ImageFigure 4. Ocean-bottom sediments are collected . . .Click to Enlarge Image

In 1993, Americans and Europeans led by Paul Mayewski of the University of New Hampshire and Bernhard Stauffer of the University of Bern in Switzerland finished recovering two new ice cores from the summit of the Greenland ice sheet. More than 40 university and national laboratories participated in the projects. We shared samples, spent time in one another's labs, replicated one another's results, proposed ideas, tore them apart and then jointly proposed better ones. One of the justifications for these new cores, located 30 kilometers apart, was to verify and learn more about the 40-year change in climate, an event observed in both cores. The records stored in these cores were more detailed than before and showed that within a 20-year period at the summit of Greenland, where ice is thickest, the amount of snow deposited each year doubled, average annual surface temperature increased by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius and wind speeds increased. The same ice cores also showed that the spatial extent of sea ice decreased, atmospheric-circulation patterns changed, and the size of the world's wetlands increased. Many of these shifts in parameters, including at least a 4-degree Celsius increase in the average annual air temperature, happened in less than 10 years. These changes were not restricted to Greenland; the global nature of many of these ice-core records showed that low-latitude, continental-scale regions rapidly got warmer and wetter. The most dramatic change occurred 11,700 years ago. But we also found comparable anomalies every several thousand years during the Wisconsin ice age (see Figure 6). Further, Antarctic ice cores also show comparable climate transitions at these times.

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