Category Archives: Research

Ancient ice-free polar forest could soon return

An ice-free polar forest once flourished, helped by enough heat and ample greenhouse gas. It could come back.

LONDON, 10 April, 2020 – Many millions of years ago, the southern continent wasn’t frozen at all, but basked in heat balmy enough for an ice-free polar forest to thrive. And ancient pre-history could repeat itself.

Climate scientists can tell you what the world could be like were today’s greenhouse gas concentrations to triple – which they could do if humans go on clearing tropical forests and burning fossil fuels.

They know because, 90 million years ago, the last time when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere went past the 1200 ppm (parts per million) mark, sea levels were 170 metres higher than today and the world was so warm that dense forests grew in what is now Antarctica.

At latitude 82 South, a region where the polar night lasts for four months, there was no icecap. Instead, the continental rocks were colonised by conifer forest, with a mix of tree ferns and an understorey of flowering shrubs.

Even though at that latitude the midday sun would have been relatively low in the sky, and the forests would have had to survive sustained winter darkness for a dozen weeks or more, average temperatures would have been that of modern day Tasmania, and a good 2C° warmer than modern Germany.

“Even during months of darkness, swampy temperate forests were able to grow close to the South Pole, revealing an even warmer climate than we expected”

German and British researchers report in the journal Nature that they took a closer look at a sequence of strangely-coloured mudstone in a core drilled 30 metres below the bottom of the sea floor, off West Antarctica.

The section of sediment had been preserved from the mid-Cretaceous, around 90 million years ago, in a world dominated by dinosaurs. By then, the first mammals may have evolved, the grasses were about to emerge, and seasonal flowering plants had begun to colonise a planet dominated for aeons by evergreens.

And in the preserved silt were pollens, spores, tangled roots and other plant material so well preserved that the researchers could not just identify the plant families, but even take a guess at parallels with modern forests. Before their eyes was evidence of something like the modern rainforests of New Zealand’s South Island, but deep inside the Antarctic Circle.

“The preservation of this 90 million-year-old forest is exceptional, but even more surprising is the world it reveals,” said Tina van de Flierdt, of Imperial College London.

“Even during months of darkness, swampy temperate forests were able to grow close to the South Pole, revealing an even warmer climate than we expected.”

British rain levels

Somewhere between 115 and 85 million years ago, the whole world was a lot hotter: in the tropics temperatures reached 35°C and the average temperature of that part of the Antarctic was 13°C. This is at least two degrees higher than the average temperature for modern Germany.

Average temperatures in summer went up to 18.5°C, and the water temperatures in the swamps and rivers tipped 20°C, only 900 kms from the then South Pole. Modern Antarctica is classed as desert, with minimal precipitation: then it would have seen 1120 mm a year. People from southwestern Scotland or parts of Wales would have felt at home.

It is an axiom of earth science that the present is key to the past: if such forests today can flourish at existing temperatures, then the same must have been true in the deep past.

So climate scientists from the start have taken a close interest in the evidence of intensely warm periods in the fossil record: a mix of plant and animal remains, the ratio of chemical isotopes preserved in rock, and even the air bubbles trapped in deep ice cores can help them reconstruct the temperatures, the composition of the atmosphere and the rainfall of, for example, the warmest periods of the Pliocene, when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere tipped the 1000 ppm mark, and average planetary temperatures rose by 9°C.

Prehistoric encore approaching?

In the past century, atmospheric CO2 levels have swollen from 285 ppm to more than 400 ppm, and the planetary thermometer has already crept up by 1°C above the level for most of human history. If human economies continue burning fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate, the conditions that prevailed 56 million years ago could return by 2159.

The Cretaceous evidence will help climate scientists calibrate their models of a world in which greenhouse gas emissions go on rising.

“Before our study, the general assumption was that the global carbon dioxide concentration in the Cretaceous was roughly 1000 ppm,” said Johann Klages, of the Alfred Wegener Institute centre for polar and marine research in Germany, who led the study.

“But in our model-based experiments, it took concentration levels of 1120 to 1680 ppm to reach the average temperatures back then in Antarctica.” – Climate News Network

An ice-free polar forest once flourished, helped by enough heat and ample greenhouse gas. It could come back.

LONDON, 10 April, 2020 – Many millions of years ago, the southern continent wasn’t frozen at all, but basked in heat balmy enough for an ice-free polar forest to thrive. And ancient pre-history could repeat itself.

Climate scientists can tell you what the world could be like were today’s greenhouse gas concentrations to triple – which they could do if humans go on clearing tropical forests and burning fossil fuels.

They know because, 90 million years ago, the last time when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere went past the 1200 ppm (parts per million) mark, sea levels were 170 metres higher than today and the world was so warm that dense forests grew in what is now Antarctica.

At latitude 82 South, a region where the polar night lasts for four months, there was no icecap. Instead, the continental rocks were colonised by conifer forest, with a mix of tree ferns and an understorey of flowering shrubs.

Even though at that latitude the midday sun would have been relatively low in the sky, and the forests would have had to survive sustained winter darkness for a dozen weeks or more, average temperatures would have been that of modern day Tasmania, and a good 2C° warmer than modern Germany.

“Even during months of darkness, swampy temperate forests were able to grow close to the South Pole, revealing an even warmer climate than we expected”

German and British researchers report in the journal Nature that they took a closer look at a sequence of strangely-coloured mudstone in a core drilled 30 metres below the bottom of the sea floor, off West Antarctica.

The section of sediment had been preserved from the mid-Cretaceous, around 90 million years ago, in a world dominated by dinosaurs. By then, the first mammals may have evolved, the grasses were about to emerge, and seasonal flowering plants had begun to colonise a planet dominated for aeons by evergreens.

And in the preserved silt were pollens, spores, tangled roots and other plant material so well preserved that the researchers could not just identify the plant families, but even take a guess at parallels with modern forests. Before their eyes was evidence of something like the modern rainforests of New Zealand’s South Island, but deep inside the Antarctic Circle.

“The preservation of this 90 million-year-old forest is exceptional, but even more surprising is the world it reveals,” said Tina van de Flierdt, of Imperial College London.

“Even during months of darkness, swampy temperate forests were able to grow close to the South Pole, revealing an even warmer climate than we expected.”

British rain levels

Somewhere between 115 and 85 million years ago, the whole world was a lot hotter: in the tropics temperatures reached 35°C and the average temperature of that part of the Antarctic was 13°C. This is at least two degrees higher than the average temperature for modern Germany.

Average temperatures in summer went up to 18.5°C, and the water temperatures in the swamps and rivers tipped 20°C, only 900 kms from the then South Pole. Modern Antarctica is classed as desert, with minimal precipitation: then it would have seen 1120 mm a year. People from southwestern Scotland or parts of Wales would have felt at home.

It is an axiom of earth science that the present is key to the past: if such forests today can flourish at existing temperatures, then the same must have been true in the deep past.

So climate scientists from the start have taken a close interest in the evidence of intensely warm periods in the fossil record: a mix of plant and animal remains, the ratio of chemical isotopes preserved in rock, and even the air bubbles trapped in deep ice cores can help them reconstruct the temperatures, the composition of the atmosphere and the rainfall of, for example, the warmest periods of the Pliocene, when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere tipped the 1000 ppm mark, and average planetary temperatures rose by 9°C.

Prehistoric encore approaching?

In the past century, atmospheric CO2 levels have swollen from 285 ppm to more than 400 ppm, and the planetary thermometer has already crept up by 1°C above the level for most of human history. If human economies continue burning fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate, the conditions that prevailed 56 million years ago could return by 2159.

The Cretaceous evidence will help climate scientists calibrate their models of a world in which greenhouse gas emissions go on rising.

“Before our study, the general assumption was that the global carbon dioxide concentration in the Cretaceous was roughly 1000 ppm,” said Johann Klages, of the Alfred Wegener Institute centre for polar and marine research in Germany, who led the study.

“But in our model-based experiments, it took concentration levels of 1120 to 1680 ppm to reach the average temperatures back then in Antarctica.” – Climate News Network

Climate research struggles to find funding

Climate research is the poor relation of the academic world. Since 1990 it’s won less than 5% of the research funds available.

LONDON, 17 February, 2020 – With the crisis of global heating now widely recognised as one of the most challenging issues facing the world today,  you might assume that vast amounts of money are going into climate research.

But researchers at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI)  and the University of Sussex in the UK say the reality is very different.

In a study published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, they report how they examined a dataset containing details of 4.3 million research funding awards made from 1950 to 2021. In total, the awards were worth more than a trillion US dollars.

After sifting through copious amounts of material, the study’s authors estimate that in the period between 1990 and 2018, only from 2.4% to 4.6% of the total global research funding made available was devoted to investigating aspects of climate change.

They then analysed the various areas of climate change-related funding, looking specifically at the amounts given to research on the issue in the field of social science.

Meagre recent funding

The study comes up with several findings. “The first is that hardly any social science research was conducted on climate change before 1990”, the authors say.

“The second observation is how little funding has gone into research on climate change overall since 1990, regardless of discipline.”

They found that within the funding granted to climate change research, the social sciences received only a relatively minuscule amount.

“From 1990 to 2018, the natural and physical sciences received a total of US$40 billion (for climate change research) compared to only $4.6 bn for the social sciences and humanities.”

“While this research is valuable, it does not tackle head-on the most urgent question: how to change society to mitigate climate change right now”

Contrast these figures with the profits over a similar period by some of the world’s biggest oil companies. According to recent analysis for the Guardian newspaper BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon made almost $2tn (£1.54tn) in profits in the 1990 to 2019 period – a time when the climate emergency was becoming widely recognised, including within the fossil fuel industry.

The study defines the social sciences as encompassing anthropology, economics, education, international relations, human geography, development, legal and media studies, political science, psychology and sociology.

The academics say the research carried out within social science has tended to concentrate on ways of adapting to climate change – such as how to manage extreme weather events and recover from disasters – rather than mitigating its effects.

“While this research is valuable, it does not tackle head-on the most urgent question: how to change society to mitigate climate change right now.”

Need for reform

Social science can play a key role in coming up with answers, says the study. It’s vital, the authors say, that issues be addressed such as how to persuade households to adopt low-carbon lifestyles, or how to promote decarbonisation among cultures and market economies as diverse as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the UK.

“Although the natural and technical sciences often generate results that are, or are perceived to be, clearer and more concrete than the social sciences, they cannot handle issue areas – such as attitudes, norms, incentives and politics – that are intrinsically social.”

The study expresses caveats about its findings: its dataset on funding awards covers only competitive research grants. In some countries such as Germany, France and China, large amounts of research funding are distributed in the form of basic grants, and it is often difficult to know precisely on what areas such money is spent.

The study says social science has to reform itself and be more in tune with what’s happening. “Some social science research is wishy-washy, lacking an understanding of the natural sciences and the physical world.”

Social scientists, it says, need to do a better job of ensuring rigour and validity in their research. – Climate News Network

Climate research is the poor relation of the academic world. Since 1990 it’s won less than 5% of the research funds available.

LONDON, 17 February, 2020 – With the crisis of global heating now widely recognised as one of the most challenging issues facing the world today,  you might assume that vast amounts of money are going into climate research.

But researchers at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI)  and the University of Sussex in the UK say the reality is very different.

In a study published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, they report how they examined a dataset containing details of 4.3 million research funding awards made from 1950 to 2021. In total, the awards were worth more than a trillion US dollars.

After sifting through copious amounts of material, the study’s authors estimate that in the period between 1990 and 2018, only from 2.4% to 4.6% of the total global research funding made available was devoted to investigating aspects of climate change.

They then analysed the various areas of climate change-related funding, looking specifically at the amounts given to research on the issue in the field of social science.

Meagre recent funding

The study comes up with several findings. “The first is that hardly any social science research was conducted on climate change before 1990”, the authors say.

“The second observation is how little funding has gone into research on climate change overall since 1990, regardless of discipline.”

They found that within the funding granted to climate change research, the social sciences received only a relatively minuscule amount.

“From 1990 to 2018, the natural and physical sciences received a total of US$40 billion (for climate change research) compared to only $4.6 bn for the social sciences and humanities.”

“While this research is valuable, it does not tackle head-on the most urgent question: how to change society to mitigate climate change right now”

Contrast these figures with the profits over a similar period by some of the world’s biggest oil companies. According to recent analysis for the Guardian newspaper BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon made almost $2tn (£1.54tn) in profits in the 1990 to 2019 period – a time when the climate emergency was becoming widely recognised, including within the fossil fuel industry.

The study defines the social sciences as encompassing anthropology, economics, education, international relations, human geography, development, legal and media studies, political science, psychology and sociology.

The academics say the research carried out within social science has tended to concentrate on ways of adapting to climate change – such as how to manage extreme weather events and recover from disasters – rather than mitigating its effects.

“While this research is valuable, it does not tackle head-on the most urgent question: how to change society to mitigate climate change right now.”

Need for reform

Social science can play a key role in coming up with answers, says the study. It’s vital, the authors say, that issues be addressed such as how to persuade households to adopt low-carbon lifestyles, or how to promote decarbonisation among cultures and market economies as diverse as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the UK.

“Although the natural and technical sciences often generate results that are, or are perceived to be, clearer and more concrete than the social sciences, they cannot handle issue areas – such as attitudes, norms, incentives and politics – that are intrinsically social.”

The study expresses caveats about its findings: its dataset on funding awards covers only competitive research grants. In some countries such as Germany, France and China, large amounts of research funding are distributed in the form of basic grants, and it is often difficult to know precisely on what areas such money is spent.

The study says social science has to reform itself and be more in tune with what’s happening. “Some social science research is wishy-washy, lacking an understanding of the natural sciences and the physical world.”

Social scientists, it says, need to do a better job of ensuring rigour and validity in their research. – Climate News Network