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Studying Earth’s distant past can teach us lessons about its climate for the future

How can air bubbles trapped in ice for millions of years, or fossilised fern fronds, or the chemical make-up of rocks that were underwater in the distant past provide us with an inkling of our future…

The past, on ice. National Ice Core Lab

How can air bubbles trapped in ice for millions of years, or fossilised fern fronds, or the chemical make-up of rocks that were underwater in the distant past provide us with an inkling of our future?

The answer lies in these clues provided by studying the Pliocene epoch, the span of geological time that stretched from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. This period of Earth’s history is interesting for many reasons, but one of the most profound is that the Earth’s atmosphere apparently contained high concentrations of carbon dioxide. Our best estimates suggest concentrations of about 300-400 parts per million (ppm) – much higher than concentrations of 100 years ago, but the same or lower than today after centuries of industrialisation and fossil fuel burning.

So studying the Pliocene could provide valuable insight into the type of planet we are creating via global warming. Our researchers at the Cabot Institute recently released a video on the topic, which has coincided with pronounced flooding across the UK and renewed attention focused on our weather and climate. There is little doubt that increased carbon dioxide concentrations will cause global warming. The key questions are how much, and with what consequences.

One of the key lessons from Earth history is climate sensitivity. Climate sensitivity can be expressed in various ways, but in its simplest sense it is a measure of how much warmer the Earth becomes for a given doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

This is well known for the Pleistocene, and especially the past 800,000 years of Earth history, a period for which we have detailed temperature reconstructions and carbon dioxide records derived from bubbles of gas trapped in ancient ice cores.

During that time, across several ice ages, the planet’s climate sensitivity showed warming of about 2.5-3°C for a doubling of carbon dioxide, which falls in the middle of the range of predictions given by models. Ice core records, however, extend back no more than a million years, and this time period is generally characterised by colder climates than those of today. If we want to explore climate sensitivity on a warmer planet, we must look further back into Earth history, to times such as the Pliocene.

Reconstructing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations without relying on ice cores is admittedly more challenging. Instead of directly measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in gas bubbles, we must rely on indirect records. For example, carbon dioxide concentration influences the number of stomata (pores) on plant leaves, and this can be measured on the fossils of ancient leaves. Alternatively, there are a number of geochemical tools based on how carbon dioxide affects the pH of seawater, or how algae take up carbon dioxide as they photosynthesise – these are recorded in the chemical composition of ancient fossils.

These means of drawing estimates come with larger margins of error, but they still provide key insights into climate sensitivity on a warmer Earth. Recent research indicates that these various carbon dioxide estimates of Pliocene carbon dioxide levels are converging, giving added confidence from which to derive estimates of climate sensitivity. In particular, it seems an increase of carbon dioxide from about 280ppm (equivalent to that before the industrial revolution) to about 400ppm in the Pliocene resulted in an Earth warmer by 2°C.

Taking into account other factors, this suggests a climate sensitivity of about 3°C, which confirms both the Pleistocene and model-based estimates. It also suggests that we have yet to experience the full consequences of the greenhouse gases already added to the atmosphere, let alone those we are still putting into it.

So then, what was this much warmer world like? First of all, it was not an inhospitable planet – plants and animals thrived. This should not be a surprise – in fact, the Earth was much warmer even further back into the past. The changes in the climate we are inducing is a problem for us humans, and for our societies, not the planet we’re on. However, the Pliocene was a rather different world. For example – relevant considering current events in Britain – higher global temperatures were associated with a climate that was also wetter than at present. That provides important corroborating evidence for models that predict a warmer and wetter future.

A section of an ice core of from 16,000 years ago. National Ice Core Laboratory

Perhaps most striking, sea level appears to have been between 10 to 40 metres higher than today, indicating that both the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctic Ice Sheet were markedly smaller. To put that into context, the Met Office has already commented on how flooding in the UK has been affected by sea level rise of 12cm over the last 100 years, and will be exacerbated further by another 5-7cm by 2030.

We must be careful in how we extract climate lessons from the geological record, and that is particularly true when we consider ice sheet behaviour. One widely discussed concept is ice sheet hysteresis. This is a fancy way of saying that due to feedback mechanisms, it could be easier to build an ice sheet on Greenland or Antarctica than it is to melt one. If hysteresis is a force stabilising our current ice sheets, then it may be that a planet with today’s carbon dioxide levels of 400 ppm will not necessarily have a sea level 20 metres higher than that of today – as it was during the Pliocene. On the other hand if hysteresis is rather weak, then the question is not whether we will see such a massive sea level change, but how long it will take to arrive (probably hundreds or even thousands of years).

Most importantly, the collective research into Earth history, including the Pliocene, reveals that Earth’s climate can and has changed. It also reveals that climate does not just change randomly: it changes when forced in ways that are relatively well understood – one of these is the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. And consequently, there is little doubt from Earth’s history that transforming fossil carbon underground into carbon dioxide in the air – as we are doing today – will significantly affect the climate we experience for the forseeable future.

Professor Rich Pancost gives a public lecture on how biogeochemical cycles have regulated the global climate system throughout Earth’s history today, February 25th, in Bristol. The event is free and open to all.