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Earth could warm up fast - "Earth is a system that can change very rapidly"

Earth could warm up fast

By Robert C. Cowen
January 26, 2006 edition -

Recent studies of some of nature's environmental "records" show that 
global warming can penetrate deep into the ocean faster than scientists 
have realized. In fact, some such penetration may have already begun.

The record keepers are foraminifera - "forams" for short - creatures so 
tiny that several could sit together on a pinhead. The mineral 
composition of their shells reflects the environmental conditions under 
which they grow. Flavia Nunes and Richard Norris at the Scripps 
Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., reported earlier this 
month in Nature that the foram record includes a global warming event 
that provides a warning for our own times. Although it occurred 55 
million years ago, they consider it a good analogue for studying the 
causes and consequences of our own global warming.

Geophysicists call the event the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum. 
Several degrees of global warming caused major changes in global ocean 
circulation patterns. This, in turn, brought warm water into normally 
frigid deep sea depths. It was accompanied by mass extinctions of 
bottom-dwelling marine life, according to the fossil record. This 
massive climate change happened in less than 5,000 years. However, Drs. 
Nunes and Norris point out that it may have happened even more quickly.

Commenting on this in the Scripps announcement, Nunes said that the key 
finding is that "the Earth is a system that can change very rapidly." 
The climate change involved a substantial rise in greenhouse gases such 
as carbon dioxide and methane. Although there was no human input, this 
is another example of the important role such gases play in climate change.

There does seem to have been a massive release of methane from the sea 
bed when warming thawed out frozen methane reservoirs there. This is a 
hazard in our own time.

"What this tells us is that the changes that we make to the Earth today 
(such as anthropogenic induced global warming) could lead to dramatic 
changes to our planet," Nunes explained.

Meanwhile, David Field, another Scripps researcher who has been working 
with several Mexican and US colleagues, has found evidence that global 
warming is beginning to penetrate the ocean today. Dr. Field, now at the 
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and his co-researchers 
described that warming earlier this month in Science.

They looked at foram records off southern California for the past 1,400 
years. Those records show considerable climate variations, decade by 
decade. Nevertheless, the 20th century stands out. Its later years 
brought what they call indications of "a deep, penetrative warming not 
observed in previous centuries." They document extensive changes in 
small animal and plant species with cold-loving forms giving way to 
warmer-water types. "These results imply that 20th-century warming, 
apparently anthropogenic, has already affected lower trophic 
[nutritional] levels of the California Current," they report.

Scientists concerned about man-made climate change have repeatedly 
warned about the possibility that the buildup of CO2 and other 
greenhouse gases driving global warming may push natural systems over a 
threshold where change exceeds their natural range of variability.

In the announcement of his group's findings, Dr. Field said that 
"changes since the 1970s have been particularly unusual and show that 
ocean ecosystems in the northeastern Pacific have passed some threshold 
of natural variability."

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