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Carbon Emissions Now Are 10x Higher Than When The Arctic Had Palm Trees

Yale conducted a survey titled Climate Change Communication, in hopes of figuring out how many people believe in climate change and to get an overall feeling of how the public responds to these concerns.

71% of people answered that they believe climate change is real and happening. 47% say they are “very” or “extremely” sure of it, 13% do not believe it is happening; the rest are unsure. 13% doesn’t seem like much, but it’s no secret that minority ideas can still be dangerous, as we know all too well today. 

Climate Change Denier

71% is a decent number though, and we can be happy that news is spreading and resonating with people. Though we are seeing a rise in those who are concerned over the Earth’s state, it’s hard to understand the true cost. We see a skinny polar bear, or watch worriedly as water creeps up around our communities (Tangier, as a good example), but during our day to day lives we might not feel the real impact that we have.

I mean, it is hard not to feel emotional when you see this (The WORST 10 year challenge out there):

PETM Event 

But when you stop to learn the facts, you find that things may be a bit more terrifying than you realized. Palaeoclimate researcher Philip Gingerich from the University of Michigan, and many researchers like him, confer mathematical models and are predicting that within the next few hundred years, we could be facing another PETM-like event.

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM) was a time period with more than 8 °C warmer global average temperature than today. This period lasted about 20,000, under circumstances that aren’t entirely known. Many think it could have started as a result of a comet or a volcano. gives us one of the most reasonable answers here:

The most likely explanation is the mass release of methane from sediments on the sea floor, where the gas was sequestered, as it is now, in a solid form as methane hydrate. Once in the atmosphere, methane would have quickly oxidized to carbon dioxide. Other possibilities are the decomposition of organic matter in terrestrial settings, or the release of methane and carbon dioxide from deeply buried rocks during volcanic events.

Whatever the causal mechanism, approximately 2,000 gigatonnes of carbon are thought to have entered the atmosphere and oceans at the same time as the PETM. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide gradually returned to near-background levels over a similar timescale to global temperatures.

The PETM happened over 56 millions years ago, and this intense and abrupt change in temperature had huge effects on lifeforms at the time. Now climate scientists use the PETM as a case study for what global warming might do to our planet today. Science Alert tells us that:

New research has found that humans are pumping nearly 10 times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than what was emitted during Earth’s last major warming event.

Within 140 years, humans could experience a cataclysmic event like the PETM. Science Alert continues:

“You and I won’t be here in 2159, but that’s only about four generations away,” warns palaeoclimate researcher Philip Gingerich from the University of Michigan.

“When you start to think about your children and your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren, you’re about there.”

The implications are less than clear. Many species would likely go extinct, if they are unable to adapt or migrate. The main difference between the last PETM and the PETM-like event that we are rolling up on is that 56 million years ago the arctic was not full of ice. These areas were warm, almost tropical. As much as I’d like to see this happening in real life, I’ll pass:

PETM Event

The species roaming the earth were completely different as well (like Mr.Ed’s ancestor here!). Since we are reaching these temperature points so rapidly, it’s hard to say what we could expect if we do not lower our emissions in time. The last PETM, all those millions of years ago, is all we have to work off of.

“Given a business-as-usual assumption for the future, the rates of carbon release that are happening today are really unprecedented, even in the context of an event like the PETM,” says Gabriel Bowen, a geophysicist at the University of Utah, who was not connected to the new study.

“We don’t have much in the way of geologic examples to draw from in understanding how the world responds to that kind of perturbation.”

This puts the spotlight on those out there that still deny climate change. Stopping any progress towards lowering our emissions is a dangerous action. The PETM resulted in mass extinctions, incredible shifts of land masses and permanent changes to the environment. Rushing into a new PETM with a cavalier attitude could be disastrous to us.

Us humans, being the emotional, political, and outright illogical animals that we are, may miss the last chance we have at righting our wrongs to this world.

Climate Change Denier


Cover image via iStockphoto




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