To make accurate predictions about the future of the Earth’s climate, we need to look to the past.
Observations on fossils and other samples of ice layers, strata or ice and sediment cores provide a picture of how Earth’s climate has changed over time. Understanding the influence of greenhouse gases in the past helps us understand the causes of modern climate change. It also helps scientists forecast changes to future climates and how these changes will affect the oceans, weather patterns, the land and how we use it.
Nature of science
Scientists make direct measurements of greenhouse gases at long-term study sites like Baring Head near Wellington and Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Mauna Loa records date back to 1950. For CO2 concentrations prior to 1950, scientists use indirect measurements from climate proxies like ice cores.
Stories from the past
As a child, Professor Jane Francis sorted through rocks on her family farm, looking for plant fossils. Fast-forward, and her interests are still much the same – but with a very different purpose. Professor Francis is a paleoclimatologist and Director of the British Antarctic Survey. She uses fossil plants as tools to interpret past climates and ancient biodiversity. For most of its history, Antarctica had a warm climate – fossilised pollens and turtle bones are among the evidence of the subtropical conditions that once existed at the South Pole. At other times, Antarctica’s climate was more like New Zealand’s South Island – the fossil record shows southern beech forests similar to those of the South Island’s West Coast rather than warmth-loving plants.
It is clear that, over time, the Earth’s climate has moved from warm periods to cold periods and back again. It is also clear from ice core records that there is a strong correlation between atmospheric temperature and CO2 levels.
Geological processes influence CO2 levels
For most of the Earth’s existence, natural geological processes controlled atmospheric CO2 levels. For example, 50 million years ago – when the polar regions were warm – fossil and rock evidence shows that the atmospheric CO2 level was around four times the pre-industrial level. CO2 had been building up slowly from volcanic outgassing (eruptions) over hundreds of millions of years.
In the last 50 million years, natural processes like mountain building and the associated weathering of feldspars to clay absorbed massive amounts of CO2. As a consequence, the climate cooled, allowing the oceans to absorb more CO2. Organic matter was buried and became coal, oil and gas. Ice formed on mountaintops, cooling the air, which led to more ice formation. Polar ice sheets reflected sunlight back into the atmosphere, locked up huge amounts of freshwater and began to drive deep ocean circulation.
Human influences on CO2 levels
With the Industrial Revolution, humans began to use the carbon (coal, oil and gas) that had been stored underground. As a result, in the last 150 years or so, CO2 levels have risen at least 300 times faster than the combined effect of natural processes in the last 10,000 years. For comparison, CO2 from global volcanic activity is less than 1% of the global industrial CO2 emissions.
Predicting the future
By using clues from the past, scientists can learn more about current CO2 levels and rising temperatures and the way they influence the Earth’s interconnected systems. For example, melting ice sheets will cause sea level rise and impact ocean functions like the Global Ocean Conveyor. These changes will affect weather and climate and, in turn, where and how we live and how we use the land.
Computer models can generate scenarios showing what the future may look like as global temperature rises. If we continue to use fossil fuels at the current rate, atmospheric CO2 will have risen 3–4 times the pre-industrial level. That’s the level Earth experienced 50 million years ago when sea levels were about 60 m higher, crocodiles roamed the Arctic and Antarctica was green.
The Spinoff's Returning to a green Antarctica is a comic drawn by Simone Giovanardi with words by Bella Duncan. It illustrates many of the concepts in this article – most notably Professor Jane Francis' video Green Antarctica and the New Zealand connection.
Professor Jane Francis explains why we need to look back to a time before the ice to picture what the Earth will look like in the future in an article from The Guardian.
Scientists, including the University of Waikato's Dave Campbell and Louis Schipper, use eddy covariance systems to measure greenhouse gases. Find out how these systems work by watching the video Eddy Covariance: Measuring an Ecosystem's Breath.
The TEDx talk Cimate change: simple, serious, solvable uses dance in a simple and accessible demonstration about the role of CO2 in climate change.
Thin Ice – The Inside Story of Climate Science, a David Sington/Simon Lamb film, looks at what’s really happening with global warming by filming scientists at work in the Arctic, the Antarctic and around the world. It gives a 56-minute view of the range of human activity and scientific work being undertaken to understand the world’s changing climate. The result is a unique exploration of the science behind global warming and an intimate portrait of a global community of researchers racing to understand our planet’s changing climate.
The Science Learning Hub has produced a series of articles using short video resources produced by the Thin Ice team. The film itself is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. It is recommended viewing to give students context for the Hub’s articles and the videos they contain. The link for streaming is available free of charge. The DVD is also available to New Zealand schools for $20 to cover costs.
Learn more at www.thiniceclimate.org.