What the Pliocene epoch can teach us about future warming on Earth

Science News reports: Imagine a world where the polar ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising and the atmosphere is stuffed with about 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Sound familiar? It should. We’re living it. But the description also matches Earth a little over 3 million years ago, in the middle of the geologic epoch known as the Pliocene.

To understand how our planet might respond as global temperatures rise, scientists are looking to warm periods of the past. These include the steamy worlds of the Cretaceous Period, such as around 90 million years ago, and the boundary of the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, about 56 million years ago.

But to many researchers, the best reference for today’s warming is the more recent Pliocene, which lasted from 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago. The mid-Pliocene was the last time atmospheric CO2 levels were similar to today’s, trapping heat and raising global temperatures to above the levels Earth is experiencing now.

New research is illuminating how the planet responded to Pliocene warmth. One set of scientists has fanned out across the Arctic, gathering geologic clues to how temperatures there may have been as much as 19 degrees Celsius higher than today. The warmth allowed trees to spread far to the north, creating Arctic forests where three-toed horses, giant camels and other animals roamed. When lightning struck, wildfires roared across the landscape, spewing soot into the air and altering the region’s climate.

Other researchers are pushing the frontiers of climate modeling, simulating how the oceans, atmosphere and land responded as Pliocene temperatures soared. One new study shows how the warmth may have triggered huge changes in ocean circulation, setting up an enormous overturning current in the Pacific Ocean, similar to the “conveyor belt” in today’s Atlantic that drives weather and climate. A second new paper suggests that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets might have responded differently to Pliocene heat, melting at different times.

All this research into the last great warm period is helping scientists think more deeply about how the future might play out. It may not be a road map to the next 100 years, but the Pliocene is a rough guide to the high sea levels, vanishing ice and altered weather patterns that might arrive hundreds to thousands of years from now.

“It’s a case study for understanding how warm climates function,” says Heather Ford, a paleoceanographer at the University of Cambridge. “It’s our closest analog for future climate change.” [Continue reading…]

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