What does past climate change tell us about global warming?

What The Science Says:
Greenhouse gasses, principally CO2, have controlled most ancient climate changes. This time around humans are the cause, mainly by our CO2 emissions.

Climate Myth: Climate's changed before
Climate is always changing. We have had ice ages and warmer periods when alligators were found in Spitzbergen. Ice ages have occurred in a hundred thousand year cycle for the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite CO2 levels being lower than they are now. More recently, we have had the medieval warm period and the little ice age. (Richard Lindzen)

At a glance

Just imagine for a moment. You fancy having a picnic tomorrow, or you're a farmer needing a dry day to harvest a ripe crop. So naturally, you tune in for a weather-forecast. But what you get is:

“Here is the weather forecast. There will be weather today and tomorrow. Good morning.”

That's a fat lot of use, isn't it? The same applies to, “the climate's changed before”. It's a useless statement. Why? Because it omits details. It doesn't tell you what happened.

Climate has indeed changed in the past with various impacts depending on the speed and type of that change. Such results have included everything from slow changes to ecosystems over millions of years - through to sudden mass-extinctions. Rapid climate change, of the type we're causing through our enormous carbon dioxide emissions, falls into the very dangerous camp. That's because the faster the change, the harder it is for nature to cope. We are part of nature so if it goes down, it takes us with it.

So anyone who dismissively tells you, “the climate has always changed”, either does not know what they are talking about or they are deliberately trying to mislead you.

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Further Details

Past changes in climate, for which hard evidence is preserved throughout the geological record, have had a number of drivers usually acting in combination. Plate tectonics and volcanism, perturbations in Earth's slow carbon cycle and cyclic changes in Earth's orbit have all played their part. The orbital changes, described by the Milankovitch Cycles, are sufficient to initiate the flips from glacials (when ice-sheets spread over much of Northern Europe and the North American continent) to interglacials (conditions like the past few thousand years) and back  – but only with assistance from other climate feedbacks.

The key driver that forces the climate from Hothouse to Icehouse and back is instead the slow carbon cycle. The slow carbon cycle can be regarded as Earth's thermostat. It involves the movement of carbon between vast geological reservoirs and Earth's atmosphere. Reservoirs include the fossil fuels (coal/oil/gas) and limestone (made up of calcium carbonate). They can store the carbon safely over tens of millions of years or more. But such storage systems can be disturbed.

Carbon can be released from such geological reservoirs by a variety of processes. If rocks are uplifted to form mountain ranges, erosion occurs and the rocks are broken down. Metamorphism – changes inflicted on rocks due to high temperatures and pressures – causes some minerals to chemically break down. New minerals are formed but the carbon may be released. Plate tectonic movements are also associated with volcanism that releases carbon from deep inside Earth's mantle. Today it is estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey that the world's volcanoes release between 180 and 440 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year - as opposed to the ~35 billion tonnes we release.

Epic carbon releases in the geological past

An extreme carbon-releasing mechanism can occur when magma invades a sedimentary basin containing extensive deposits of fossil fuels. Fortunately, this is an infrequent phenomenon. But it has nevertheless happened at times, including an episode 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian Period. In what is now known as Siberia, a vast volcanic plumbing-system became established, within a large sedimentary basin. Strata spanning hundreds of millions of years filled that basin, including many large coal, oil, gas and salt deposits. The copious rising magma encountered these deposits and quite literally cooked them (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: schematic cross section though just a part of the Siberian Traps Large Igneous Province, showing what science has determined was going on back then, at the end of the Permian Period.

Now laden with a heavy payload of gases, boiled out of the fossil fuel deposits, some of the magma carried on up to the surface to be erupted on a massive scale. The eruptions – volcanism on a scale Mankind has never witnessed - produced lavas that cover an area hundreds of kilometres across. Known as the Siberian Traps, because of the distinctive stepped landforms produced by the multiple flows, it has been calculated that the eruptions produced at least three million cubic kilometres of volcanic products. Just for a moment think of Mount St Helens and its cataclysmic May 1980 eruption, captured on film. How many cubic kilometres with that one? Less than ten.

Recently, geologists working in this part of Siberia have found and documented numerous masses of part-combusted coal entrapped in the lavas (Elkins-Tanton et al, 2020; fig. 2). In the same district are abundant mineral deposits formed in large pipes of shattered rock as the boiling waters and gases were driven upwards by the heat from the magma.

Fig. 2: an end-Permian smoking gun? One of countless masses of part-combusted coal enclosed by basalt of the Siberian Traps. Photo: Scott Simper, courtesy of Lindy Elkins-Tanton.

It has been calculated that as a consequence of the Siberian Traps eruptions, between ten trillion and one hundred trillion tons of carbon dioxide were released to the atmosphere over just a few tens of thousands of years. The estimated CO2 emission-rate ranges between 500 and 5000 billion tonnes per century. Pollution from the Siberian Traps eruptions caused rapid global warming and the greatest mass-extinction in the fossil record (Burgess et al, 2017). There are multiple lines of hard geological evidence to support that statement.

We simply break into those ancient carbon reservoirs via opencast or underground mines and oil/gas wells. Through such infrastructure, the ancient carbon is extracted and burned. At what rate? Our current carbon dioxide emissions are not dissimilar to the estimated range for the Siberian Traps eruptions, at more than 3,000 billion tons per century. The warning could not be more clear. Those telling you the climate's changed before are omitting the critical bit – the details. And when you look at the details, it's not always a pretty sight.

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