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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

Climate, from the Bottom Down

One can also learn a lot about what controls climate by studying sediments on the ocean floor. These sediments contain the decayed remains of ocean organisms and inorganic material from the erosion of rocks. Ocean organisms assimilate chemical compounds from the water as they grow, and the compounds they incorporate are partially determined by the environment in which they live. Thus the decayed remains of the organisms that fall to the ocean floor contain a record of what chemical compounds were available and the temperature of the water in which they lived.

Figure 6. Ice-core record from Vostok . . .Click to Enlarge Image

For example, consider an ocean-sediment core collected at Bermuda Rise, a place where ocean currents deposit a lot of sediment. The oxygen-18/oxygen-16 ratio of seawater varies through time depending on how much water is locked in ice sheets and how much water is in the ocean (see Figure 7). The near surface–dwelling foraminiferan Globigerinoides ruber uses seawater to make its shell. By measuring the oxygen isotopic composition of the shells recovered from an ocean core, we can determine how much water was locked up in ice sheets when the foraminiferan was living. Likewise, the bottom-dwelling foraminiferan Nutallides umbonifera incorporates cadmium and calcium in its shell. By measuring the ratio of cadmium to calcium in the shells recovered from an ocean core, we can tell where the bottom water came from when the foraminiferan was living. High values of the cadmium-to-calcium ratio indicate that the water near the bottom came to the Bermuda Rise from the south, whereas a low ratio indicates that the bottom water came from the north.

Figure 7. Ice-core record from the Greenland . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Ocean sediments also contain ground-up rock, which is transported and deposited by ocean currents, just as wind carries airborne dust to be deposited on ice sheets. The mineralogy of the ground-up rock can be used to identify where it came from. For example, a layer of hematite-rich sediments in ocean cores near Bermuda indicates that ocean currents were transporting material from the east coast of Canada to Bermuda when the sediments in the layer were deposited.

To determine what the temperature of the ocean surface was in the past we can use organic compounds made by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton live near the ocean surface where there is light for photosynthesis. Some phytoplankton produce compounds know as alkenones, which are straight chains of carbon atoms. Along these chains of carbon there can be two or three double bonds. The number of double bonds depends on the water temperature. The double bonds are thought to keep the cell membrane pliable in cold water. When the phytoplankton die, the alkenones fall to the bottom and become incorporated into the sediment. By measuring the ratio of different types of alkenones we can determine what the surface water temperature was when the phytoplankton were living.

By collecting cores of the ocean sediments at different locations, we can determine a lot about how the ocean circulated water and heat in the past. The rapid climate changes recorded in the ice cores encouraged a search for ocean sediment records with high time resolution. In the past few years locations have been identified in the ocean where sediment accumulates rapidly, and the sediment cores from these locations have comparable time resolution to the ice cores. Coring projects off the coast of Bermuda by Konrad Hughen, Julian Sachs and Scott Lehman with the University of Colorado, in conjunction with Lloyd Keigwin of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Ed Boyle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found the same rapid changes in climate as were recorded in the ice cores. Other groups have found similar records near Santa Barbara, California and off the coast of India.

Paleoclimatic evidence worldwide shows that a global change in climate took place 11,700 years ago, and in the North Atlantic a large part of the change took less than 20 years. It was a few thousand years before the completion of the transition from ice age to warm period; still, in just a 20-year period the climate of a large part of the earth changed significantly. There was no warning. A threshold was crossed, and the climate in much of the world shifted abruptly from cold to warm. This was not a small perturbation; our civilization has never experienced a climate change of this magnitude or speed. To get an idea of what happened, imagine that over a 20-year period the weather at your home became that typical of a place 400 to 600 miles farther south. What might be the mechanism for so rapid and large a climate change?

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