Existing levels of carbon dioxide, roughly 400 parts per million (ppm), in the atmosphere could produce conditions comparable with the Pliocene period three million years ago, experts warn.
This means that Antarctica could turn green again as plants begin to grow in the land underneath the ice.
This is why researchers believe that studying evidence from this geological epoch could provide an idea of what the future of the planet holds and help humans adapt accordingly.
The Royal Meteorological Society and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change will hold a meeting on Wednesday to discuss this topic.
According to figures from the World Meteorological Organization, in 2015 CO² levels in the atmosphere reached 400 ppm on average for the first time.
However, Professor Martin Siegert, co-director of the Grantham Institute, Imperial College, says that a “lag” is likely before we feel the true effects of hitting this threshold. This is why studying the Pliocene era could offer clues as to what conditions we may be facing when that time comes, he said.
Sea levels were around 15 meters higher and temperatures were between 2 and 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer than now during that period.
“(If) you put your oven on at home, and set it to 200C, the temperature doesn’t get to that immediately,” Professor Siegert said.
“It takes a bit of time, and it’s the same with the climate.”
Professor Dame Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey, also said that remnants of forests in Antarctica were probably dated to the Pliocene age.
“The really important significance of this is that we’ve got 400 ppm now, and if we had 400 ppm in the past, this is maybe where we are going back to,” she said.
“Which is the ice sheets are going to shrink at times, not all the time but at times… which may allow plants to colonize in Antarctic land again.”
According to Professor Siegert, carbon dioxide levels before the industrial revolution in 1850 were at 280 ppm but since then, the global temperature has increased by around 1C.
“What it means is that by the end of this century, we might expect another 1C,” he added.
At current rates, carbon dioxide levels could soar to as much as 1000 ppm by 2100. This would bring the planet to the same level it was 100 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the planet and Antarctica was much greener.
“If our mission was to put that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere and recreate the Cretaceous period, 100 million years ago – if that was our mission, we are doing a pretty good job,” Professor Siegert said.
He said that global action to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was crucial.
“The consequences of what we have done over 150 years will continue into the future, so it’s up to us to do something,” he said.
“We will be judged in history on how well we respond to this issue, and at the moment we’re not doing a very good job.”
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