August 24, 2014, by Tim Radford
The woolly rhinoceros once roamed wild on the plains of Europe
Image: Public Library of Science via Wikimedia Commons
Computer simulations reaching back deep into the last Ice Age have enabled scientists to put a historic perspective on how even small variations in the climate system can lead to dramatic temperature change. LONDON, 24 August, 2014 − It doesn’t take much to change a planet’s climate – just a little shift in the Northern hemisphere glacial ice sheet and a bit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. After that, the response is rapid. The tropical rain belt moves north and the southern hemisphere cools a bit, in some sort of bipolar see-saw response. Sound familiar? It does, and it doesn’t. It all happened long before the internal combustion engine, or even the new Stone Age. Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, the University of Bremen, Germany, and the University of Cardiff in the UK, report in Nature journal that they have made climate simulations that agree with observations of historical climate change that date back 800,000 years. Long before the present alarms about global warming through the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, climate researchers were puzzled by the phenomenon of the Ice Ages and the “interglacials” that punctuated those long periods when the Arctic ice extended from the North Pole to the Atlantic coast of France, and over huge tracts of North America.
Mysteriously, and at great speed, the temperatures would rise by up to 10°C and the vast walls of ice would retreat. Lion, hyena and rhinoceros would invade the wild plains of what is now southern England, and now-vanished species of humans would hunt big game and gather fruit and seeds in the valleys and forests of Europe and America. Since the end 10,000 years ago of the last ice age – itself a very rapid event – was the springboard for agriculture and civilisation, and eventually an Industrial Revolution based on fossil fuels, the story of climate change plays a powerful role in human history. So any analysis of the tiny shifts in ice cover that seemed to trigger these dramatic, bygone events can be helpful in understanding the long story of the making of the modern world. The researchers found a tentative scenario involving weak ocean currents, and prevailing winds that shifted the sea ice and allowed the oceans and atmosphere to exchange heat, pushing warmer water into the north-east Atlantic. These changes precipitated a dramatic warming of the northern hemisphere in just a few decades, and the retreat of the glaciers for an extended period before the ice returned to claim much of the landmass again. But, overall, such changes tended to occur when sea levels reached a certain height. “The rapid climate changes known in the scientific world as Dansgaard-Oeschger events were limited to a period of time from 110,000 to 23,000 years before the present,” said Xu Zhang, the report’s lead author. “The abrupt climate changes did not take place at the extreme low sea levels, corresponding to the time of maximum glaciations 20,000 years ago, or at high sea levels such as those prevailing today. They occurred during periods of intermediate ice volume and intermediate sea levels”
Co-author Gerrit Lohmann, who leads the Wegener Institute’s palaeoclimate dynamics group, said: “Using the simulations performed with our climate model, we were able to demonstrate that the climate system can respond to small changes with abrupt climate swings. “At medium sea levels, powerful forces − such as the dramatic acceleration of polar ice cap melting − are not necessary to result in abrupt climate shifts and associated drastic temperature changes.” How much this tells anybody about modern climate change is open to debate. Right now, according to this line of evidence, the planet’s climate could be in one of its more stable phases of the Earth’s history. But while the conditions for the kind of rapid change recorded in pre-history do not exist today, Prof Lohmann warns that “sudden climate changes cannot be excluded in the future”. – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.