Our future on Earth may also be our past. In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers show that humans are reversing a long-term cooling trend tracing back at least 50 million years. And it’s taken just two centuries.
By 2030, Earth’s climate is expected to resemble that of the mid-Pliocene, going back more than 3 million years in geologic time. Without reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, our climates by 2150 could compare with the warm and mostly ice-free Eocene, an epoch that characterised the globe 50 million years ago.
‘If we think about the future in terms of the past, where we are going is uncharted territory for human society’, says the study’s lead author, Kevin Burke, who conducted the work while a graduate student in the lab of paleoecologist John ‘Jack’ Williams, professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ‘We are moving toward very dramatic changes over an extremely rapid time frame, reversing a planetary cooling trend in a matter of centuries.’
Can humans adapt?
All of the species on Earth today had an ancestor that survived the Eocene and the Pliocene, but whether humans and the flora and fauna we are familiar with can adapt to these rapid changes remains to be seen.
The accelerated rate of change appears to be faster than anything life on the planet has experienced before.
The new study builds upon work Williams and colleagues first published in 2007, which compared future climate projections with historical climate data from the early 20th century. The new study relies on extensive data about climate conditions to probe much deeper in Earth’s geologic past and expand those comparisons.
‘We can use the past as a yardstick to understand the future, which is so different from anything we have experienced in our lifetimes’, says Williams. ‘People have a hard time projecting what the world will be like five or 10 years from now. This is a tool for predicting that- how we head down those paths, and using deep geologic analogs from Earth’s history to think about changes in time.’
The evolution of Earth
During the Eocene, Earth’s continents were packed more closely together and global temperatures averaged 23.4 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) warmer than they are today.
Dinosaurs had recently gone extinct and the first mammals, like ancestral whales and horses, were spreading across the globe. The Arctic was occupied by swampy forests like those found today in the southern US.
In the Pliocene, North and South America joined tectonically, the climate was arid, land bridges allowed animals to spread across continents and the Himalayas formed. Temperatures were between 3.2 and 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 to 3.6 degrees Celsius) warmer than they are today.
For the study, Burke and Williams, along with colleagues at the University of Bristol, Columbia University, University of Leeds, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, examined the similarities between future climate projections as set forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report and several periods of geologic history.
These included the Early Eocene, the mid-Pliocene, the Last Interglacial (129 to 116 thousand years ago), the mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago), the pre-industrial era (before A.D. 1850) and the early 20th century.
They used Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5), which represents a future climate scenario in which we do not mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and RCP4.5, a scenario in which we moderately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and climate simulations using three different but well-established models: the Hadley Centre Coupled Model version 3, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE2-R and the Community Climate System Model.
While not without their flaws, each of these models represents the best available data and state-of-the-art techniques.