Fossil record tells us that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would be disastrous

November 1st, 2010 by The Geological Society

The climate change ‘experiment’ has already been run, with results that would be disastrous for the world today, according to evidence highlighted in a statement published today by The Geological Society of London.

”A dramatic global warming event took place 55 million years ago” says GSL President Dr Bryan Lovell. ”It gives us a particularly clear indication of what happens when there is a sudden release of 1000 billion tonnes of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere. It gets hot, the seas become more acid, and there is widespread extinction of life”.

Dr Colin Summerhayes, GSL Vice-President and lead author of the statement, adds, “apart from the 55 million year warming event, the world has been cooling and losing CO2 from the atmosphere for the past 50 million years. During parts of the previous interglacial period, 130,000 years ago, when polar temperatures reached 3-5°C above today’s, global sea levels were higher than at present by around 4-9m. Our emissions of CO2 are now bucking the trend of the past 50 million years. The message from the ice cores is that continued emissions may be expected to lead to similar warming and rises in sea level to those of the last interglacial period – something we would be wise to avoid.”

The statement outlines the geological evidence relating to past climates, atmospheric carbon levels and their relationship with each other, highlighting the contribution which geologists can make to the study of climate change.

“Climate change is a defining issue of our time, the full understanding of which requires the long perspective offered by geology” says Dr Lovell.

“Earth scientists can read in detail the geological record of changes in climate that occurred long before we were around to light so much as a camp fire, let alone burn coal, gas and oil. We are a third of the way to repeating that ancient natural input of carbon that took place 55 million years ago through our own agency. The message from the rocks is that it would be a good idea to stop pulling that carbon trigger.”

On 2-3 November, The Geological Society is hosting a conference in partnership with the British Ecological Society, exploring in detail the ecological effects of the 55 million year warming event and similar past events, and what they can tell us about our future world.

This Geological Society Statement on Climate Change was written by a team of palaeoclimate experts led by Dr Colin Summerhayes, following wide consultation with many Earth scientists and with the entire Fellowship of the Society, who were asked, through the pages of the Society’s monthly Fellowship magazine Geoscientist, to send in contributions.

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