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Study offers a dire warning on climate change

ELLESMERE ISLAND, CANADA - MARCH 29: A section of a glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada. The ice fields of Ellesmere Island are retreating due to warming temperatures. NASA's Operation IceBridge has been studying how polar ice has evolved over the past nine years and is currently flying a set of eight-hour research flights over ice sheets and the Arctic Ocean to monitor Arctic ice loss aboard a retrofitted 1966 Lockheed P-3 aircraft. According to NASA scientists and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice in the Arctic appears to have reached its lowest maximum wintertime extent ever recorded on March 7.Scientists have said the Arctic has been one of the regions hardest hit by climate change. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images
A glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017, above Ellesmere Island, Canada. The ice fields are retreating due to warming temperatures.

WASHINGTON — Continuing to burn fossil fuels at the current rate could bring atmospheric carbon dioxide to its highest concentration in 50 million years, jumping from about 400 parts per million now to more than 900 parts per million by the end of this century, a study warns.

And if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated beyond that point, the climate could reach a warming state that hasn’t been seen in the past 420 million years.

Some research suggests that, if humans burned through all fossil fuels on Earth, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations could hit 5,000 parts per million by the year 2400.

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The new study speaks to the power of human influence over the climate. It suggests that after millions of years of relative stability in the absence of human activity, just a few hundred years of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are on track to cause unprecedented warming.

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To come to these grim conclusions, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers constructed a continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations spanning the last 420 million years. They created the record by compiling more than 1,500 estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations drawn from 112 published studies.

According to lead author Gavin Foster, a geochemistry professor at the University of Southampton, those estimates were constructed mainly using the carbon isotope composition of ancient soil samples or examining the abundance of pores on the leaves of fossilized plants, an indicator of how much carbon dioxide was available for them to draw from the air while they were alive.

The findings suggest that, until humans started rapidly burning fossil fuels with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s climate had been relatively stable for millions of years, and carbon dioxide concentrations were declining. Thanks to the human emission of greenhouse gases, though, that’s all changing at a record-breaking pace.

Current concentrations of CO2 emissions are at their highest in human history, hovering around 400 parts per million and continuing to rise. Before the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide concentrations had settled into an average of about 280 parts per million.

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On a business-as-usual pathway — in which greenhouse gas emissions would continue at their current rate — carbon dioxide concentrations would hit a level that hasn’t been seen in 50 million years, according to the research.

The warming that will be brought on by the continued emission of greenhouse gases will only be compounded by an increase in solar radiation as the sun continues to grow brighter, the researchers said.

A business-as-usual trajectory suggests that carbon dioxide levels could exceed 2,000 parts per million by the year 2250, concentrations that were last seen about 200 million years ago. But thanks to the combined influence of a hotter future sun, the planet’s resulting warming will probably be greater than at almost any point in the past 420 million years.

Additionally, at least one study has suggested that concentrations could be as high as 5,000 parts per million by 2400 if humans were to burn through all the fossil fuels on Earth, and that would result in both the highest carbon dioxide levels and the highest temperatures seen in the study period.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has presented estimates of how much the Earth might warm under a business-as-usual trajectory over certain time periods. It suggests that by 2300, the Earth could warm by nearly 48 degrees Fahrenheit. But there are many factors that could affect temperature trends in the long-term that remain uncertain, Foster suggested, such as changes in terrestrial vegetation or the amount of carbon dioxide the ocean has room to absorb in the coming centuries.

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As a result, he said, long-term warming could end up being even more intense than we estimate now.

The study helps address a kind of paradox in the Earth’s climate history. Based on our knowledge of the way stars generate energy, scientists know that our solar system’s young sun would have been much dimmer millions of years ago. Over time, its intensity has increased, and is likely to continue doing so for millions or even billions of years.

If the sun has been getting hotter for millions of years, though, then one would expect the planet’s climate to have steadily warmed during that time, as well, Foster noted. But there is ample evidence from the fossil record to suggest the planet’s climate actually remained mostly stable for millions of years before humans began burning fossil fuels. Scientists have hypothesized that this stability came from a long-term reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which offset the warming caused by a brightening sun.

The new study supports this idea. The researchers’ record suggests that, while there have been fluctuations throughout history, the long-term average carbon dioxide concentration generally declined until the Industrial Revolution as a result of natural processes related to the formation of Earth. Thanks to human activity, carbon dioxide levels are rising again, on track to break millennial-scale records if mitigation efforts aren’t undertaken, the study says.

Foster emphasizes the new historical record is not perfect. But as far as we know, future warming “is going to be unprecedented.’’