Global warming: a perspective from earth history

A position paper of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London
Friday November 26, 2004

The Guardian

Global climate change is increasingly recognised as the key threat to the continued development - and even survival - of humanity. Here, we give the context obtained from earth history, as the pattern of global environmental change in the past provides an indispensable context to establishing likely trajectories of future climate change. We find that the evidence for human-induced climate change is now persuasive, and the need for direct action compelling.

Ice Age climate

Ice Age climate change has been rapid, pervasive and frequent. For instance, during the last 2.6 million years, the duration of the current Ice Age, there have been 104 major fluctuations between global cold and global warmth. Each of the major fluctuations was itself complex, encompassing 'minor' changes of up to 5 degrees centigrade in average annual temperature. As temperature rose and fell, so did global sea level, by up to 130 metres. These changes did not lead to catastrophic global extinctions of the earth's biota. The extensive animal and plant communities of the past, undisrupted by human development, could adapt to the changes by migrating, or by shrinking or expanding populations. In shrinking animal populations, of course, there is an excess of deaths over births, by starvation or predation. Our current human population, faced with comparable climate change, will have a similar choice, and there is now little room for migration.

Our current interglacial Human development has coincided with one of the relatively infrequent episodes of prolonged climate stability, of a little over 10 000 years since the end of the last glaciation. This episode is the latest of a series of interglacial phases which, in the last half million years, have occurred at intervals of roughly 100 000 years. It has been commonly thought that we are at the tail-end of this warm climate phase, and that feeling sharpened in the late 1990's when new data from Antarctic ice cores showed that the previous three warm phases each lasted between 6000 and 9000 years. Thus, given a similar trend, the ice-sheets would have returned to cover Europe during the ancient Egyptian or Greek civilizations, and the trend of human history would have been immeasurably different.

This year, though, the longest Antarctic ice-core record yet obtained shows that the warm phase before that, a little less than half a million years ago, lasted some 30 000 years. That long interglacial episode is thought to be the best model for our current warm phase, because of the similarity of the earth's alignment vis-æ-vis the sun's rays. On these grounds, therefore, even without human intervention, another 20 000 years of warmth may be expected.

Greenhouse gas records As regards the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (in particular), the link of these to climate is now firm. The ice-cores not only preserve a detailed and reproducible record of global temperature (deduced from isotope ratios); they also contain a record of atmospheric composition, now going back three-quarters of a million years, as bubbles of gas trapped in the ice layers. As temperatures rose and fell, so did the levels of these gases in the atmosphere.

It is also undoubted that levels of CO2 are now some 30% higher than at any time over the past 750 000 years, (with levels of methane having more than doubled). CO2 levels are now increasing, seemingly inexorably, by nearly 1% a year, and the trend is accelerating. It is also beyond doubt that these increases are due to human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, rather than being due to, say, volcanic activity. Levels of human-sourced emission dwarf anything produced by even the largest recent eruptions (e.g. Krakatoa) and the ice-core record shows that, while records of past massive eruptions are preserved as layers rich in volcanic dust and sulphur dioxide, there are no CO2 'spikes' of eruptive origin.

Cause and effect?

The ice-core trends of temperature and greenhouse gases match so precisely that there has been room for doubt as to what is cause and what is effect. Thus, could the temperature changes be driving CO2/methane levels in the atmosphere (by altering patterns of global biomass production and storage, say) rather than the other way around? If this was true, then the currently increasing levels of CO2 and methane need not give rise to significant global warming: they would be a consequence, rather than a cause.

The record of greenhouse gas links to climate is further muddied by records of climate changes which were not global in extent. It is becoming increasingly clear, for instance, that a severe, millennium-long cooling event in the northern hemisphere which saw an ice-cap grow over northern Scotland some 12 000 years ago, saw warming (by a kind of global see-saw effect) in the southern hemisphere. Another uncertainty of the recent record is that we are already at a temperature high of the current Ice Age, and so, climatically, are heading towards uncharted territory.

One track into this uncharted territory is to model, mathematically, the effects of increasing greenhouse gases on temperature. In these models, the earth and its various parameters need to be simplified, and there also remain considerable uncertainties, such as whether increased water vapour produced during warming will lead to further warming (water vapour being a greenhouse gas) or cooling (if the water vapour condenses to produce light-reflecting clouds). Most current models suggest global warming of between 2 and 6 degrees by the end of this century, to levels unprecedented in earth history over the past few million years.

Lessons from the deep past

An alternative approach is to look for examples in more ancient earth history, of similar phenomena to the present: that is, of sudden, massive outbursts of greenhouse gases into a world that is already warm. At least two have been identified, in the Toarcian epoch of the Jurassic Period, some 180 million years ago, and in the early Eocene Epoch, around 55 million years ago.

In both of these, the influx of greenhouse gases has been demonstrated by changes in the ratios of carbon isotopes within fossils. The isotopes themselves do not say whether mainly CO2 or methane was involved, but plausible scenarios suggest the involvement of both (say, by deriving CO2 from extraordinary, geologically rare volcanic outbursts, providing initial warming which in turn destabilized methane which had been stored in permafrost or in ocean floor sediments). Whatever the precise mix of gases, the amount of warming is now well established, again from isotope ratios preserved in fossils. Rapid warmings of the order of between 5 and 10 degrees centigrade took place globally, the temperatures declining back to background values over many thousands of years, probably as the excess greenhouse gases were slowly drawn out of the atmosphere by reactions associated with rock weathering.

These geological examples strongly reinforce the modelled scenarios of global warming for later this century. Crucially, such temperature surges show the earth behaving in a non-linear fashion when reacting to environmental stress: that is, it tends to 'flip' from one quasi-stable state to another, and this kind of behaviour is inherently difficult to model or to predict. There will be, the oceanographer Wallace Broecker has said, unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse.

That the earth has been shown to recover eventually is philosophically comforting, but will be of no practical help to many hundreds of human generations.

Consequences of climate change

Some of the likely consequences of climate change - shifts in temperature and rainfall that may create dustbowls and famine, and more frequent and violent and hurricanes - have been given considerable publicity. While these represent grave problems, it has been argued that it would benefit society more to carry on with economic business as usual, and simply adapt to the new climatic circumstances. We focus here on sea level change, the impact of which is likely to be on such a scale that adaptation cannot be presented as a preferred option.

Sea level change

Sea level has constantly fluctuated in the geological past: its highest recorded level was in the Cretaceous Period, some 80 million years ago, when CO2 levels were considerably higher than at present, and ice-caps were virtually absent from the earth. Then, sea level stood at least 200 metres higher than today, with most of the UK being submerged.

The sea level fluctuations of the Ice Age, as continental ice caps waxed and waned, are well known. Thus, 20 000 years ago, at the peak of the last glaciation, so much water had been extracted from the oceans that sea level stood some 120 metres below its present level, and Stone Age people walked across the floor of the North Sea.

The most recent analogue?

Less well known are the variable sea levels recorded in previous warm phases of the Ice Ages. For instance, in the most recent of these, some 125 000 years ago, sea level reached some 6 m higher than at present. Such a difference is geologically modest, and reflects relatively minor differences in the extent of melting of land ice. We emphasize that it occurred in a world where levels of greenhouse gases, unaffected by humans, were lower than at present.

So how much can sea level rise in a world where, say, the levels of CO2 are at twice pre-industrial levels and where global temperatures are between 2 and 5 degrees higher? We cannot predict this precisely, but sea level rises of a few to several tens of metres would not be geologically unusual.

Ice sheets today

Even at today's slightly elevated temperatures, with a rise of around half a degree centigrade, mountain glaciers are receding significantly, as also seem to be, locally, the margins of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. The Greenland icecap is vulnerable, and its loss would mean a sea level rise of some 7 metres. As it creates its own regional climate, its loss may be effectively permanent. In Antarctica, the recent break-up of ice shelves has precipitated increased streaming of ice from much farther inland, which potentially represents the initiation of a phase of much more serious ice-sheet collapse.

This recently observed behaviour has shown clearly that ice-sheets are not relatively inert masses responding sluggishly to temperature change. Rather they are now perceived in much more dynamic terms, showing strong - and potentially dangerous - responses to small changes in external conditions. This would accord with geological evidence indicating past ice-sheet collapses, releasing 'iceberg armadas' and causing sea level rises of several metres in a decade.


The threat to humanity is clear: such a disappearance of living space (with some 100 million people living within less than 1 metre above present sea level) would represent a virtually impossible burden to a human population that is already struggling to feed itself, and is set to add another three billions to its numbers this century.

We note that it may not be the amount of sea level rise, as its speed, which may be catastrophic for a large section of humanity. The geological record shows that the melting of icecaps does not proceed smoothly, but occurs in fits and starts. Thus, the last retreat of the great ice-sheets included at least three episodes where sea level rose some 5-10 metres within the space of a decade. This is because a modest sea level rise can destabilize the edge of a mass of land ice, causing large parts of it to rapidly slide into the sea.

The consequences of such a sea level rise would be calamitous, comparable (and perhaps including as a consequence) a global war. Unlike a world war, though, civilization cannot get back to normal afterwards, as much of the landscape will have been drowned, effectively forever. We consider the threat to be imminent, the timescale of the global changes seeming likely to include the lifespans of our children.

The central problem

We therefore add our voices to those urging more serious attention, and action, from national and international bodies. The central problem is one of the massive transfer of carbon from beneath the ground into the atmosphere, caused by humanity's enormous demands for energy, and current dependence on fossil fuels to supply by far the greatest part of this energy.

It is hard to convey the sheer scale of this carbon transfer. In numbers, it currently runs at some 6.5 billion tons each year. How can one visualize this? If the Great Pyramid of Khufu were made of diamond, the densest and most compact form of pure carbon, it would weigh some 6.5 million tons. So, globally, our annual carbon transfer, through fossil fuel burning, to the atmosphere is equivalent to one thousand Great Pyramids, all made of diamond. We burn, each year, around a million years worth of accumulated hydrocarbons.


The problem can only be marginally (i.e. ineffectually) addressed by increases in alternative energy and energy efficiency; these should be promoted, but likely savings will be modest, and probably offset by population and economic growth. And, given the huge energy and material demands in the construction of, say, wind farms, the ultimate value of these is debatable. More radical solutions to humanity's dilemma are necessary, and these might include:
- massive underground sequestration of CO2. This is not yet a proven method on anything like the scale needed, but needs to be pursued with urgency. - large-scale capture of CO2 from the air and its conversion into a mineralized form, perhaps as carbonate minerals. - a large-scale switch to civil nuclear power. This has the benefit of being proven technology and, additionally, has the potential to lie at the heart of future hydrogen-based transport systems. We are acutely aware of the problems and current public unpopularity of this route, and the knock-on effects for, say, nuclear arms proliferation. Nevertheless, the dangers arising from global warming may be orders of magnitude greater than those resulting from an effectively controlled nuclear power generation programme.

We urge serious, and immediate, consideration of these issues. The dangers posed by climate change are no longer merely possible and long-term. They are probable, imminent, and global in scope.

Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz (Chair)
Dr. Tiffany Barry (secretary)
Dr. Angela Coe
Dr. David Cantrill
Professor Andy Gale
Dr. Philip Gibbard
Dr. John Gregory
Dr. Mick Oates
Professor Peter Rawson
Dr. Alan Smith © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

The following are some comments by Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz.

Foreword: 'We don't have much time'

Jan Zalasiewicz heads an eminent, mainstream body of geologists which has just published a paper outlining its belief that the world is under serious threat of environmental destruction. Here he explains why it was necessary to speak out

Friday November 26, 2004

If the world is coming to an end today, what do you do? That's easy. You can go down to the pub for a few swift pints. Or read one more story to the kids. Or take a dozen red roses round to an old flame. Or just take a walk round the garden.

But what if apocalypse is a century or two down the road - maybe about when, let's say, the grandkids are settling down to bring up nice smiling kids of their own. And if apocalypse can be not prevented altogether, but downsized, perhaps rendered manageable - but only if we, as a global society, decide to spend a lot more, right now, on apocalypse prevention. What then?

That's much more difficult. It is, though, roughly speaking, the predicament that many earth scientists feel themselves to be in. For global warming now looks set to give humanity a very bumpy ride over the next few centuries. The kind of changes that look set to play havoc with the lives of our children's children have happened before in earth history, and look set - given humanity's present trajectory - to happen again. This is not just another environmental scare story, filling column inches to give readers a vicarious thrill. Global warming won't be a thrill, and it won't be vicarious.

Now I've found geologists to be a pretty sanguine lot, on the whole, and not prone to environmental hyper-sensitivity. Resource depletion? Waste disposal? Urban contamination? Acid rain? All problems that are eminently soluble, given common sense, good science, and reasonable funding.

But global warming seems to be different. I've talked with colleagues in the earth sciences - calm, rational, ultra-sanguine colleagues by nature - and, particularly if they were anywhere near the science of carbon and of climate, the sense of worry has been palpable, and a sense of helplessness too. Helpless because the root cause - fossil fuels - lie at the heart of the global economy, and of our everyday lives.

Is this feeling more widespread among scientists? Well, here's a kind of straw poll, amongst professional geologists who deal in earth history. These are members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society. You almost certainly won't have heard of it. It's the kind of body that's part of the almost imperceptible backcloth of science. The Stratigraphy Commission does useful, nuts-and-bolts things: producing recommendations on technical nomenclature, collating information on rock strata, organizing academic meetings, that kind of thing. It's mainstream, not faintly radical, and members are chosen for their technical expertise, and emphatically not for their environmental zeal.

Nevertheless, it was instructive, and sobering, that when we discussed this question, there was no representation of what one might call the Bjorn Lomborg school of thought: that global warming, if not exactly an expression of pure collective hysteria, isn't worth spending money on. Rather, global warming is shaping up as the problem that looks set to dwarf all the other current environmental ills.

Absolute unanimity? Not quite: there were differences of opinion and differences of emphasis in the discussion, and the scale of just what we don't know about the earth-ocean-climate system now (let alone in the past) was raised more than once: so there's a lot of science to do yet. Still, give three geologists a scientific puzzle and very soon you will have at least five competing hypotheses; thatĖs the nature of the beast named Science, which has scepticism hard-wired in. Yet there was substantial agreement - hence the resulting document.

This statement is well outside the scope of our normal activities. We really are unaccustomed to speaking out collectively in public on matters of general concern. It's quite out of character. Nonetheless, here's our perspective. It represents mainstream earth science. It essentially supports the kind of case that Professor David King, the government's chief scientific advisor, has been making, and that Lord Oxburgh, former President of the Geological Society, has supported. There is a stimulus for us acting so much out of character. It's the gulf between the official admission that there is a problem, and the slender resources currently devoted to fixing it (not to mention the support of economic activities that are stoking the fires). We maybe can still avoid the worst, if enough resources go in, but we donĖt have much time. And it's time, certainly, to be serious about this.

n.b. for those who want to pursue some of the primary scientific literature, we will be putting a version of the paper on the Stratigraphy Commission website, listing sources we have used.

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