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Climate Change Occurs 10 Times Faster Than Any Change
Recorded In Past 65 Million Years, Scientist Warn

2 August, 2013

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MessageToEagle.com - Climate change on pace to occur 10 times faster than any change recorded in past 65 million years, Stanford scientists say.

Without intervention, this extreme pace could lead to a 5-6 degree Celsius spike in annual temperatures by the end of the century.

But what might be even more troubling for humans, plants and animals is the speed of the change.

Stanford climate scientists - Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and Chris Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution - warn that the likely rate of change over the next century will be at least 10 times quicker than any climate shift in the past 65 million years.


The top map shows global temperatures in the late 21st century, based on current warming trends. The bottom map illustrates the velocity of climate change, or how far species in any given area will need to migrate by the end of the 21st century to experience climate similar to present. Courtesy of Stanford University


Diffenbaugh and Field, both senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, investigated how recent observations and projections for the next century compare to past events in Earth's history.

If the trend continues at its current rapid pace, it will place significant stress on terrestrial ecosystems around the world.

The planet experienced a 5 degree Celsius hike in temperature 20,000 years ago, as Earth emerged from the last ice age. This is a change comparable to the high-end of the projections for warming over the 20th and 21st centuries.

The geologic record shows that, 20,000 years ago, as the ice sheet that covered much of North America receded northward, plants and animals recolonized areas that had been under ice.

As the climate continued to warm, those plants and animals moved northward, to cooler climes.

"We know from past changes that ecosystems have responded to a few degrees of global temperature change over thousands of years," said Diffenbaugh.

"But the unprecedented trajectory that we're on now is forcing that change to occur over decades. That's orders of magnitude faster, and we're already seeing that some species are challenged by that rate of change."


Image Credit: Stepan Kapl / Shutterstock


Some of the strongest evidence for how the global climate system responds to high levels of carbon dioxide comes from paleoclimate studies.

Fifty-five million years ago, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was elevated to a level comparable to today. The Arctic Ocean did not have ice in the summer, and nearby land was warm enough to support alligators and palm trees.

"There are two key differences for ecosystems in the coming decades compared with the geologic past," Diffenbaugh said.

"One is the rapid pace of modern climate change. The other is that today there are multiple human stressors that were not present 55 million years ago, such as urbanization and air and water pollution."

Scientists say that extreme weather events, such as heat waves and heavy rainfall, are expected to become more severe and more frequent.

By the end of the century, should the current emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked, temperatures over the northern hemisphere will tip 5-6 degrees C warmer than today's averages. In this case, the hottest summer of the last 20 years becomes the new annual norm.

"It's not easy to intuit the exact impact from annual temperatures warming by 6 C," Diffenbaugh said.

"But this would present a novel climate for most land areas. Given the impacts those kinds of seasons currently have on terrestrial forests, agriculture and human health, we'll likely see substantial stress from severely hot conditions."

Humans have already emitted greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere and oceans have already been heated.

"If every new power plant or factory in the world produced zero emissions, we'd still see impact from the existing infrastructure, and from gases already released," Diffenbaugh said.

The research is published in the current issue of Science.


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