Press-Republican

Columns

August 7, 2011

Past temperature changes have current meaning

"Long, long ago, the planet Earth got warm: very, very warm." Is this the beginning of a fairy tale? Not really, but it is a fantastic story and still emerging from the pages of Earth's history.

Data show that about 56 million years ago our planet got very warm. This period is shown in the chart labeled Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. It is a bit of a mouthful, which is why the abbreviation PETM is mostly used.

The research is of major interest because the temperature spike was sudden and huge. The chart shows a large spike in temperature of about 5 degrees centigrade, or 9 degrees Fahrenheit, over earlier conditions.

Carbon dioxide levels also peaked (not shown), and the data suggests that the levels were perhaps four to five times that of today's. Sea levels were also far higher, and the polar ice caps were gone.

The obvious implication, and of interest to scientists, is the fact that we are combusting enormous amounts of carbon-based fossil fuels today, with a resultant 40-percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, mostly in the past 100 years. An MIT study has estimated a doubling of today's levels by 2100, under a "business as usual" scenario, or about half the PETM levels.

So what was going on? Humans cannot be blamed for that event, as we were not even a twinkle in nature's eye then.

Enter Paleoclimatology. This relatively new discipline is the study of past climates. This sounds straight forward, but the challenges of understanding events millions of years ago are formidable. Determined scientists have, however, developed new tools and techniques, and with lots of field work, found rock layers and ocean cores that span that time period. This has given us a good glimpse of what happened back then.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Columns
  • Terry_Mattingly.jpg Easter with doubters and the 'nones'

    Should more pastors ask this blunt question: "Do you really believe Jesus was raised from the dead?" wonders religion columnist Terry Mattingly.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • ouellette.jpg Web doctor always gets it right

    I have access to the collected medical knowledge of all recorded history at my fingertips, columnist Steve Ouellette writes.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Canadiens are Canada's team

    The National Hockey League playoffs are underway, and for Canadiens fans, many of whom likely reside in the Montreal "suburb" of Plattsburgh, it is a time of hope and joy.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • little_mug.jpg There's no saw like an old saw Kaye and I laughed ourselves silly the other day as we tried to top each other with our own sayings from childhood, columnist Gordie Little writes.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Denenberg_Stu1.jpg Privacy concerns make a comeback

    There's a growing concern amongst the millennials, columnist Stu Denenberg writes.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • paul_grasso.jpg Several options exist for downtown

    Pedestrian mall just one idea that could be good for city's economic future, according to columnist Paul Grasso.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • colin_read.jpg Government can't create success on its own

    It takes a grass-roots community effort of people working together to assure future accomplishment, according to columnist Colin Read.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Hagar_mug1.jpg Farmers strive for sustainability

    Conserving the land and assuring long-term profitability are two of the key goals for farmers these days, according to columnist Peter Hagar.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Big shift in Quebec vote

    Being a man of science, Philippe Couillard, premier-designate of Quebec, chose to use a geological term (though his field is actually medicine) to describe what happened in Monday's election, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Terry_Mattingly.jpg A monastery in the Hebrides, after 1,000 years

    Before Father Seraphim Aldea can build a monastery on Scotland's Mull Island, he needs to have a working septic system, writes religion columnist Terry Mattingly.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

Peter Black: Canadian Dispatch

Lois Clermont, Editor

Cornell Cooperative Extension
Richard Gast: Cornell Ag Extension

Bob Grady

Guest Columns
Peter Hagar: Cornell Ag Connection

Health Advice

Ray Johnson: Climate Science
Gordie Little: Small Talk

Terry Mattingly: On Religion

Steve Ouellette: You Had To Ask

Colin Read: Everybody's Business

Pinch of Time