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Earth has been this warm before- what's different now?

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I’m a little late to the news about the epic charts produced by Shaun Marcott at Oregon State in his paper that traces global climate temperature anomalies back some 11,000 years (link). But for posterity, here is the main takeaway from his paper:

Marcott and his colleagues constructed this history of our planet’s temperature using ocean fossil records. (Science)

We can see the temperature anomalies relative to a baseline of temperatures between 1961 and 1990. Note the warming period from 10,000 years ago up through 6,000 years ago, the gradual cooling, and then the abrupt uptick recently.

A lot has already been said about the results. For that, I direct you to Dot Earth, which has an informative exchanges between Andy Revkin and experts in the climate change science field. There is also The Atlantic, which cuts to the chase with its article: “We’re Screwed: 11,000 Years of Climate Data to Prove It”. Tell us how you really feel!

Are we royally screwed, as The Atlantic suggests? This much we know: yes, the global climate has been warming at an alarming rate not seen at any other time in our history, as far as we can tell. The planet has been this warm before yes, but it had millennia to get to that point, and only since we’ve burned everything in sight to fuel our industrial revolutions have we apparently climbed our way out of another multi-millennial cooling cycle.

I’m generally an optimist, but I am worried because there are several major differences between the Bronze Age and modern times. What worries me about climate change is the rate of change. The last time the planet was this warm, humans had mastered bronze metallurgy (huzzah!), and warmer temperatures and our new found technology helped fuel agricultural expansion that ultimately allowed city-states to exist. Third millennium BC civilization had more time to adapt to a warming climate, and even then, not everyone made out on the other side (for a multitude of reasons, aforementioned warring city-states being one of them).

Fast forward to modern times, and we now count the population in billions, up from tens of millions. While we like to think of ourselves as a highly mobile society, with our iPhones, and cars, and intercontinental flights, we are in fact an extremely immobile society in terms of our infrastructure and resources. We aren’t wandering the plains tracking buffalo anymore - we are rooted in our homes and condos and to our farms and water reservoirs. No longer are effects isolated to a small band of people - a shift in rain patterns here, or a rise in sea level there, can mean millions or billions of dollars in lost infrastructure and damages.

So yes, I’m worried. I’m worried that we have goosed the climate system in the last 100 years or so, and we’re moving even slower than the climate at adapting to the coming changes. Changes that have happened throughout our history, as we can see, but now with more mobility constraints and greater resource dependencies.

More to come on this, as always.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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