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Idea of slow climate change in the past is flawed, researchers say

It isn't the rate of climate change that's changed, but our view of time.

By Brooks Hays
Idea of slow climate change in the past is flawed, researchers say
New research suggests climate change happened fast in the past too. File photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Marco Varro

NUREMBERG, Germany, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Climate scientists have mostly been operating under the assumption that climate change in the past happened at a much slower pace than the changes being witnessed today. But researchers in Germany say that assumption is false.

Though the scarcity of proper geologic records inhibits the study of climate changes over short periods of prehistoric time, it's a mistake to assume the absence of rapid change. Accelerated climate change in the past, scientists from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg argue, may be invisible, but it's not absent.

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As explained in new paper on the subject, published in the journal Nature Communications, the issue is perspective.

Modern climate change is studied in precise increments of time, allowing researchers to see the sharp rise in temperature and greenhouse gas concentrations. But periods of climatic change from the past are viewed with a wide angle lens.

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"Today we can measure the smallest fluctuations in climate whenever they occur," climate scientist Kilian Eichenseer explained in a press release. "Yet when we look at geological history we're lucky if we can determine a change in climate over a period of ten thousand years."

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In viewing change across long expanses of time, scientists see gradual change. But as Eichenseer and his colleagues point out, change is not constant. Just as today climate change happens in spurts -- slower rates of change followed by higher rates of change followed by periods of stasis -- so too did past instances of climate change.

Their analysis of ancient climate change records revealed this warped perspective. The longer the period of climate change studied, the slower the rate of change appeared to be. Yet, scientists point out, researchers acknowledge the ability of ancient climatic change to precipitate mass extinction events.

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Eichenseer and his colleagues say the speed of climate change in the past was likely similar to today. It isn't the rate of climate change that's changed, but our view of time.

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