What can we learn about climate change by studying the climate of the past? Icebergs float off the port of Ilulissat, Greenland. (U.S. Department of State/NASA)
What can we learn about climate change by studying the climate of the past?
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Predicting the weather is a science. It is complex. Predictions can become less accurate. This happens as the range of the forecast increases. So how have scientists managed to learn what the climate was millions of years ago? And why is this important today? Scientists convened. They met at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. They got together last spring. They pieced together what the climate was like throughout Earth’s history. They went back millions of years. Their findings help explain paleoclimate. And they provide useful models. It helps them understand present climate change. It helps them predict future climate change.

Scientists have a wide array of models. They have proxies. These are at their disposal. They use them to study ancient climates. For example, models can be used to simulate the weather. It is weather from millions of years ago. The late Jurassic was 150 million years ago. Paleoclimate models may use changes in solar constant. They may use continental configuration. And they may use the amount of carbon dioxide. This can provide a kind of weather forecast for dinosaurs. These can be averaged to approximate the climate of the time.

The archeologist studies artifacts. Paleoclimatologists study different types of environmental evidence. They reconstruct previous climates. Fossilized plankton contain evidence. They tell of the environment in which their shells were formed. The chemical composition of the shells alters according to temperature. In this way, ocean temperatures are imprinted in the fossil records. It can be read using chemical analysis. 

Skeletonized marine invertebrates include clams. They include snails. And they include coral. They also reflect the environment in which they develop. Approximates of the temperatures in which they grew can be recovered. This data can revealed. This happens by analyzing their chemistry. Growth rings are like the rings of a tree. They show development over a number of years. There may be variances in the chemical composition. These are between consecutive rings. These illustrate seasonal variation. Thus, we can get a picture of how hot the summer was millions of years ago. And a picture of how cold the winter was millions of years ago. 

The scientists and climate modellers convened. They came together in the spring of 2018. They combined their research. They created a graph. It showed how climate and temperature changed. This was throughout Earth’s history. 

But how does looking back millions of years help us predict future climate? For one, these studies provide evidence. It shows how different climatic factors come together. And it shows their various consequences. For example, scientists study the fluctuations of carbon dioxide over time. This helps them understand the effects of carbon dioxide on climate and sea levels. 

The Devonian era was 400 million years ago. Carbon dioxide levels were approximately four times what they are today in that era. Carbon dioxide levels similar to those observed today were last seen 3 million years ago. That was a time when there was no ice on Greenland. What happened the last time carbon dioxide levels were as high as scientists predict they might be by the end of the century? There was no ice in Antarctica. This would produce a difference in ocean levels. They would be approximately 197 ft. Paleobiologists provide a model. It helps us understand different environmental processes. It helps us predict the effects of future climate change. They do this by reconstructing historical climate change. 

Funding for the Earth’s Temperature Curve Symposium was provided by Roland and Deborah Sauermann. This article was based on it.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is it important to learn about historical climates?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (1)
  • Will-E2
    4/29/2019 - 11:01 a.m.

    This article is about climate change. Scientists are studying past climate change and models to help predict climate change. I picked to read this article because i am interested in climate change. I wonder if the scientists have developed a way to fix some/all climate change?

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