The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international research project, has succeeded in taking core samples from the floor of the Arctic Ocean. The event marks a first for science and could yield new information on global climate change.
“The project was a technological feat, and all of the findings in these papers are especially new and exciting, given the fact that nobody’s ever taken core samples like this before from the floor of the Arctic Ocean,” says Matthew Huber of Purdue University’s College of Science, which is affiliated with the program. Climate modelers celebrate their access to this data as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The samples contain the remains of animal and plant life several million years old. By analyzing the lipids (fatty substances) in the cells’ membranes, researchers can determine the average temperature that prevailed during the organisms’ life. They discovered that sea surface temperatures in the Arctic reached around 73°F (23°C) during the era 55 million years ago known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum period (PETM).
At some point during the PETM, the earth released a great abundance of greenhouse gas (possibly methane or carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere, resulting in a greenhouse effect and an accompanying global temperature rise of 5°C.
“We now have a pretty good correlation between records of past warmth and higher carbon-dioxide concentrations,” Huber says. “What it tells you is that it’s not too difficult to push the climate system to a warm state. This event was a large release of greenhouse gas. That’s why it’s a good analog for today’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and it shows without a doubt that if you pump a bunch of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, the planet warms. If you work out the numbers, it’s almost identical to what we are expected to do over the next few hundred years.”
The new data is a call to action, according to Appy Sluijs, a doctoral student at Utrecht University’s Institute for Environmental Biology. “There is a fundamental discrepancy between what kind of climate we expect to result from high atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and what kind of climate really prevailed during these epochs,” Sluijs says. “We hence need to improve our climate models.”
The findings were published in the June 1, 2006, issue of Nature magazine. -Patrick Tucker
Source: Purdue University News Service, 400 Centennial Mall Drive, Room 324, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907. Telephone 756-494-2096; Web site http://www.purdue.edu.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2006.