Researchers at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute recently published a report that reveals that Earth is experiencing ecological change at a greater rate than ever seen before. The team documented the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide released during a global environmental event 120 million years ago, in which volcanic activity contributed to the rise in atmospheric CO2. After comparing this data with the contemporary rate of increasing greenhouse gases, the researchers determined that today’s rate of change is far quicker, which is an alarming piece of information given that this dramatic volcanic event resulted in mass extinctions on the planet.

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The team at University of Bristol turned to the past to better understand climate change today. “Past records of climate change must be well characterized if we want to understand how it affected or will affect ecosystems,” says lead author Dr. David Naaf. The team picked an event which demonstrated similar conditions to those experienced today. “The change, however, appears to have been far slower than that of today, taking place over hundreds of thousands of years, rather than the centuries over which human activity is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels,” says Naaf.

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New data compiled by the team demonstrates that atmospheric carbon dioxide during the event of 120 MYO remained elevated for 1.5-2 million years after volcanic activity stabilized.

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One notable point that the team has highlighted is the difficulty of using past events to draw conclusions about future climate change. “Testing the risks associated with the pace of modern environmental change is proving problematic, due to a lack of similar rapid changes in the geological past,” says Professor Rich Pancost, Director of  the Cabot Institute. “Consequently, these risks, in this case to the marine ecosystems on which so many of us depend, remain associated with profound uncertainty. Decreasing CO2 emissions, as recently agreed in Paris, will be necessary to avoid these risks.”


Images via Shutterstock, US Global Change Research Program and Virginia Institute of Marine Science