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Ice age data analysis offers good news for Earth’s current climate woes

A team of brilliant climate scientists has taken a deep dive into Earth’s Last Ice Age to unravel the complex relationship between climate change, carbon dioxide (CO2), future global temperatures.

By focusing on the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), a period 21,000 years ago when much of North America was covered in ice, the study aims to improve our understanding of climate sensitivity and the potential warming we face in the years and decades ahead.

Analyzing the last ice age for future climate clues

As carbon dioxide (CO2) levels continue to rise in the atmosphere, the Earth’s climate will continue to change, and temperature is expected to increase.

However, the exact relationship between CO2 and global warming, known as climate sensitivity, is still under investigation.

A recent study led by Vince Cooper, a doctoral student in atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, and senior author Kyle Armour, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences and oceanography, has shed new light on this critical relationship by analyzing data from Earth’s Last Ice Age.

“The main contribution from our study is narrowing the estimate of climate sensitivity, improving our ability to make future warming projections,” Cooper explained.

“By looking at how much colder Earth was in the ancient past with lower levels of greenhouse gases, we can estimate how much warmer the current climate will get with higher levels of greenhouse gases,” he continued.

Data from the LGM: Coldest chapter of the Last Ice Age

The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) refers to the period during the Last Ice Age when global ice sheets reached their maximum extent. This occurred around 21,000 years ago and lasted for several thousand years.

The LGM represents the coldest and most severe stage of the last glacial period. During the LGM, global temperatures were significantly lower than today, with average temperatures around 6 degrees Celsius cooler.

This extreme cooling allowed ice sheets to expand and cover vast areas of the Earth’s surface. The Laurentide Ice Sheet in North America and the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet in Europe were at their peak, while glaciers advanced in mountainous regions worldwide.

Sea level changes and exposed landmasses

As water became locked up in the massive ice sheets, global sea levels dropped by approximately 125 meters during the LGM.

This dramatic decrease in sea levels exposed extensive areas of the continental shelves, creating land bridges between regions that are now separated by water.

The most famous example is the Bering Land Bridge, which connected Asia and North America, allowing human populations and animals to migrate between the continents.

The LGM also saw significant changes in the Earth’s atmospheric composition. Carbon dioxide levels were much lower than today, dropping to around 190 parts per million (ppm) compared to the current level of over 400 ppm.

This decrease in greenhouse gases contributed to the cooler global temperatures and amplified the effects of the expanding ice sheets.

Influence on ecosystems and biodiversity

The harsh conditions of the LGM had a profound impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. Tundra and steppe environments expanded, while forests retreated to smaller refugia.

Many plant and animal species adapted to the colder climate, with some megafauna, such as woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths, thriving during this period.

However, the LGM also led to the extinction of some species that were unable to cope with the changing environmental conditions.

Refining future climate warming estimates from ice age data

By analyzing data from the Last Glacial Maximum, the study’s results show significant deviations from current warming projections.

The best-case, and most likely estimates, for warming due to doubling CO2 levels remain unchanged at about 2 and 3 degrees Celsius, respectively.

However, the worst-case scenario has been reduced by a full degree, from 5 to 4 degrees Celsius.

“This paper allows us to produce more confident predictions because it really brings down the upper end of future warming, and says that the most extreme scenario is less likely,” Armour enthused.

“It doesn’t really change the lower end, or the average estimate, which remain consistent with all the other lines of evidence,” he concluded.

The authors caution that recent decades are not a reliable predictor of future global warming trends.

Shorter-term climate cycles and the effects of atmospheric pollution are just some of the reasons why recent patterns cannot be relied upon to forecast the rest of the century.

“The spatial pattern of global warming in the most recent 40 years doesn’t look like the long-term pattern we expect in the future — the recent past is a bad analog for future global warming,” emphasized Armour.

Combining paleoclimate records and computer models

By combining prehistoric climate records from the Last Glacial Maximum, such as ocean sediments, ice cores, and preserved pollen, with computer models of the Earth’s climate, Vince Cooper and his team were able to simulate the weather conditions of this ancient period.

“The paleoclimate record includes long periods that were on average much warmer or colder than the current climate, and we know that there were big climate forcings from ice sheets and greenhouse gases during those periods,” explained Cooper.

“If we know roughly what the past temperature changes were and what caused them, then we know what to expect in the future,” he concluded.

Role of ice sheets and clouds

The study revealed that the ice sheet covering much of North America during the Last Glacial Maximum had a more significant cooling effect than previously thought.

In addition to reflecting summer sunlight off the continents, the ice sheet also altered wind patterns and ocean currents, causing the northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans to become especially cold and cloudy.

These cloud changes over the oceans compounded the glacier’s global cooling effects by reflecting even more sunlight.

Predicting future climate with help from Earth’s last ice age

In summary, as we continue to face the challenges posed by climate change, studies like this one provide valuable insights into the complex relationship between CO2 and global warming.

By refining our understanding of climate sensitivity and improving our ability to make future warming projections, researchers are helping to inform policymakers and the public about the potential impacts of rising greenhouse gas levels.

While the study’s findings offer some reassurance that the most extreme warming scenarios are less likely, it is crucial to remember that even moderate increases in global temperature can have significant consequences for our planet and its inhabitants.

As we work towards a more sustainable future, it is essential that we continue to support and invest in climate change research to better understand and mitigate the risks posed by a warming world.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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