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NASA Study Finds World Warmth Edging Ancient Levels
A new study by NASA scientists finds that the world's temperature is reaching a level that has not been seen in thousands of years.
The study, led by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, N.Y., along with scientists from other organizations concludes that, because of a rapid warming trend over the past 30 years, the Earth is now reaching and passing through the warmest levels in the current interglacial period, which has lasted nearly 12,000 years. An "interglacial period" is a time in the Earth's history when the area of Earth covered by glaciers was similar or smaller than at the present time. Recent warming is forcing species of plants and animals to move toward the north and south poles.
The study used temperatures around the world taken during the last century. Scientists concluded that these data showed the Earth has been warming at the remarkably rapid rate of approximately 0.36° Fahrenheit (0.2° Celsius) per decade for the past 30 years.
"This evidence implies that we are getting close to dangerous levels of human-made pollution," said Hansen. In recent decades, human-made greenhouse gases have become the largest climate change factor. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere and warm the surface. Some greenhouse gases, which include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone, occur naturally, while others are due to human activities.
The study notes that the world's warming is greatest at high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, and it is larger over land than over ocean areas. The enhanced warming at high latitudes is attributed to effects of ice and snow. As the Earth warms, snow and ice melt, uncovering darker surfaces that absorb more sunlight and increase warming, a process called a positive feedback. Warming is less over ocean than over land because of the great heat capacity of the deep-mixing ocean, which causes warming to occur more slowly there.
Hansen and his colleagues in New York collaborated with David Lea and Martin Medina-Elizade of UCSB to obtain comparisons of recent temperatures with the history of the Earth over the past million years. The California researchers obtained a record of tropical ocean surface temperatures from the magnesium content in the shells of microscopic sea surface animals, as recorded in ocean sediments.
One of the findings from this collaboration is that the Western Equatorial Pacific and Indian Oceans are now as warm as, or warmer than, at any prior time in the Holocene. The Holocene is the relatively warm period that has existed for almost 12,000 years, since the end of the last major ice age. The Western Pacific and Indian Oceans are important because, as these researchers show, temperature change there is indicative of global temperature change. Therefore, by inference, the world as a whole is now as warm as, or warmer than, at any time in the Holocene.
According to Lea, "The Western Pacific is important for another reason, too: it is a major source of heat for the world's oceans and for the global atmosphere."
In contrast to the Western Pacific, the researchers find that the Eastern Pacific Ocean has not shown an equal magnitude of warming. They explain the lesser warming in the East Pacific Ocean, near South America, as being due to the fact this region is kept cool by upwelling, rising of deeper colder water to shallower depths. The deep ocean layers have not yet been affected much by human-made warming.
Hansen and his colleagues suggest that the increased temperature difference between the Western and Eastern Pacific may boost the likelihood of strong El Ninos, such as those of 1983 and 1998. An El Nino is an event that typically occurs every several years when the warm surface waters in the West Pacific slosh eastward toward South America, in the process altering weather patterns around the world.
The most important result found by these researchers is that the warming in recent decades has brought global temperature to a level within about one degree Celsius (1.8°F) of the maximum temperature of the past million years. According to Hansen, "That means that further global warming of 1 degree Celsius defines a critical level. If warming is kept less than that, effects of global warming may be relatively manageable. During the warmest interglacial periods the Earth was reasonably similar to today. But if further global warming reaches 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know. The last time it was that warm was in the middle Pliocene, about three million years ago, when sea level was estimated to have been about 25 meters (80 feet) higher than today."
Global warming is already beginning to have noticeable effects in nature. Plants and animals can survive only within certain climatic zones, so with the warming of recent decades many of them are beginning to migrate poleward. A study that appeared in Nature Magazine in 2003 found that 1700 plant, animal and insect species moved poleward at an average rate of 6 kilometers (about 4 miles) per decade in the last half of the 20th century.
That migration rate is not fast enough to keep up with the current rate of movement of a given temperature zone, which has reached about 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) per decade in the period 1975 to 2005. "Rapid movement of climatic zones is going to be another stress on wildlife," according to Hansen. "It adds to the stress of habitat loss due to human developments. If we do not slow down the rate of global warming, many species are likely to become extinct. In effect we are pushing them off the planet."
Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, R. Ruedy, K. Lo, D.W. Lea, and M. Medina-Elizade 2006. Global temperature change. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 103, 14288-14293, doi:10.1073/pnas.0606291103.
Leslie McCarthy, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, N.Y., 212-678-5507, firstname.lastname@example.org