Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Environmental Analysis
Scientific Community
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Climate Change on Pace to Occur 10 Times Faster than any Change Recorded in Past 65 Million Years

Published: Monday, August 05, 2013
Last Updated: Monday, August 05, 2013
Bookmark and Share
Without intervention, this extreme pace could lead to a 5-6 degree Celsius spike in annual temperatures by the end of the century.

The planet is undergoing one of the largest changes in climate since the dinosaurs went extinct. But what might be even more troubling for humans, plants and animals is the speed of the change. Stanford climate scientists warn that the likely rate of change over the next century will be at least 10 times quicker than any climate shift in the past 65 million years.

If the trend continues at its current rapid pace, it will place significant stress on terrestrial ecosystems around the world, and many species will need to make behavioral, evolutionary or geographic adaptations to survive.

Although some of the changes the planet will experience in the next few decades are already "baked into the system," how different the climate looks at the end of the 21st century will depend largely on how humans respond.

The findings come from a review of climate research by Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and Chris Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution. The work is part of a special report on climate change in the current issue of Science.

Diffenbaugh and Field, both senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, conducted the targeted but broad review of scientific literature on aspects of climate change that can affect ecosystems, and investigated how recent observations and projections for the next century compare to past events in Earth's history.

For instance, the planet experienced a 5 degree Celsius hike in temperature 20,000 years ago, as Earth emerged from the last ice age. This is a change comparable to the high-end of the projections for warming over the 20th and 21st centuries.

The geologic record shows that, 20,000 years ago, as the ice sheet that covered much of North America receded northward, plants and animals recolonized areas that had been under ice. As the climate continued to warm, those plants and animals moved northward, to cooler climes.

"We know from past changes that ecosystems have responded to a few degrees of global temperature change over thousands of years," said Diffenbaugh. "But the unprecedented trajectory that we're on now is forcing that change to occur over decades. That's orders of magnitude faster, and we're already seeing that some species are challenged by that rate of change."

Some of the strongest evidence for how the global climate system responds to high levels of carbon dioxide comes from paleoclimate studies. Fifty-five million years ago, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was elevated to a level comparable to today. The Arctic Ocean did not have ice in the summer, and nearby land was warm enough to support alligators and palm trees.

"There are two key differences for ecosystems in the coming decades compared with the geologic past," Diffenbaugh said. "One is the rapid pace of modern climate change. The other is that today there are multiple human stressors that were not present 55 million years ago, such as urbanization and air and water pollution."

Record-setting heat

Diffenbaugh and Field also reviewed results from two-dozen climate models to describe possible climate outcomes from present day to the end of the century. In general, extreme weather events, such as heat waves and heavy rainfall, are expected to become more severe and more frequent.

For example, the researchers note that, with continued emissions of greenhouse gases at the high end of the scenarios, annual temperatures over North America, Europe and East Asia will increase 2-4 degrees C by 2046-2065. With that amount of warming, the hottest summer of the last 20 years is expected to occur every other year, or even more frequently.

By the end of the century, should the current emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked, temperatures over the northern hemisphere will tip 5-6 degrees C warmer than today's averages. In this case, the hottest summer of the last 20 years becomes the new annual norm.

"It's not easy to intuit the exact impact from annual temperatures warming by 6 C," Diffenbaugh said. "But this would present a novel climate for most land areas. Given the impacts those kinds of seasons currently have on terrestrial forests, agriculture and human health, we'll likely see substantial stress from severely hot conditions."

The scientists also projected the velocity of climate change, defined as the distance per year that species of plants and animals would need to migrate to live in annual temperatures similar to current conditions. Around the world, including much of the United States, species face needing to move toward the poles or higher in the mountains by at least one kilometer per year. Many parts of the world face much larger changes.

The human element

Some climate changes will be unavoidable, because humans have already emitted greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere and oceans have already been heated.

"There is already some inertia in place," Diffenbaugh said. "If every new power plant or factory in the world produced zero emissions, we'd still see impact from the existing infrastructure, and from gases already released."

The more dramatic changes that could occur by the end of the century, however, are not written in stone. There are many human variables at play that could slow the pace and magnitude of change – or accelerate it.

Consider the 2.5 billion people who lack access to modern energy resources. This energy poverty means they lack fundamental benefits for illumination, cooking and transportation, and they're more susceptible to extreme weather disasters. Increased energy access will improve their quality of life – and in some cases their chances of survival – but will increase global energy consumption and possibly hasten warming.

Diffenbaugh said that the range of climate projections offered in the report can inform decision-makers about the risks that different levels of climate change pose for ecosystems.

"There's no question that a climate in which every summer is hotter than the hottest of the last 20 years poses real risks for ecosystems across the globe," Diffenbaugh said. "However, there are opportunities to decrease those risks, while also ensuring access to the benefits of energy consumption."

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,800+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More than 4,000+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Stanford Engineers Discover How to Record the Forensic History of Chemical Contaminations in Water
An invention called a time capsule is a tiny chemistry lab designed to take a fingerprint of contamination and also disclose when it occurred.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Assessing the Costs and Benefits of Fracking
New analysis finds hydraulic fracturing poses dangers for people living near the wells, now a Stanford-led study believes we can do better.
Monday, September 15, 2014
Stanford Research Shows Value of Clams, Mussels in Cleaning Dirty Water
New Stanford research shows that bivalves can cleanse streams, rivers and lakes of potentially harmful chemicals that treatment plants can't fully remove.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
New Stanford Facility will Test Water-Recovery Technology
The new Codiga Resource Recovery Center at Stanford will accelerate commercial development of promising technologies for recovery of clear water and energy from wastewater.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Tracking a Silent Killer in Rural Bangladesh
An interdisciplinary team of Stanford researchers seek to understand why lead contamination persists in one of the poorest corners of the world, and how to stop its spread.
Monday, January 06, 2014
Stanford Research Shows China's Clean-Water Program Benefits People and the Environment
For the past four years China has been paying farmers to grow corn instead of rice, an effort that is paying off for people and the environment.
Monday, September 09, 2013
Stanford Scientists Break Record for Thinnest Light-Absorber
Stanford scientists have built the thinnest, most efficient absorber of visible light on record, a nanosize structure that could lead to less-costly, more efficient, solar cells.
Monday, July 22, 2013
Stanford's GCEP will Award $6.6 Million for Novel Energy Research
The Global Climate and Energy Project will award $6.6 million for research that leads to cleaner fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Stanford Scientists Help Shed Light on Key Component of China's Pollution Problem
Study reveals scale of nitrogen's effect on people and ecosystems.
Friday, March 01, 2013
Scientific News
Safer, Faster Way To Remove Pollutants From Water
Using nanoparticles filled with enzymes proves more effective than current methods.
Low Impact Fracking Fluid on Top at IChemE Global Awards
A novel fracturing fluid designed to make fracking greener.
Marine Invasive Species May Benefit From Rising CO2 Levels
Ocean acidification may well be helping invasive species of algae, jellyfish, crabs and shellfish to move to new areas of the planet with damaging consequences, according to the findings of a new report.
Game for Climate Adaptation
MIT-led project shows a new method to help communities manage climate risks.
Tufts Chemist Discovers Way to Isolate Single-crystal Ice Surfaces
Promises insights into climate, environment and age-old riddles, such as why no two snowflakes are alike.
Potential Indirect Effects of Humans on Water Quality
Newly studied class of water contaminants occur naturally, but are more prevalent in populated areas.
Rapid Method for Water, Air and Soil Pathogen Screening
Researchers at BGU and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a highly sensitive, cost-effective technology for rapid bacterial pathogen screening of air, soil, water, and agricultural produce in as little as 24 hours.
First Results Describing Sick Sea Star Immune Response
Though millions of sea stars along the West Coast have perished in the past several years from an apparent wasting disease, scientists still don’t know why.
Microbe Sleuth
Tanja Bosak examines how life and the Earth evolved in tandem during their early history together.
The Age of Humans Controlling Microbes
Engineered bacteria could soon be used to detect environmental toxins, treat diseases, and sustainably produce chemicals and fuels.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,800+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
4,000+ scientific videos