|12 December 2003
Early farmers may have warmed Earth's climate
Measurements of ancient air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice offered evidence that humans may have been changing the global climate since thousands of years before the industrial revolution.
Beginning 8,000 years ago, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide began to rise as humans started clearing forests, planting crops and raising livestock, while methane levels started increasing 3,000 years later. The combined increases of the two greenhouse gases implicated in global warming were slow but steady and staved off what should have been a period of significant natural cooling, said Bill Ruddiman, emeritus professor at the University of Virginia.
The changes also disrupted regular patterns that dominated the 400,000 years of atmospheric history that scientists have teased from samples of ancient ice. Previously, scientists widely assumed it was only with the onset of the factory age that human activity had any significant effect on the global climate. The prehistoric changes in carbon dioxide and methane levels have been noted before but were attributed to natural causes, Ruddiman said. This controversial theory drastically widens the debate about the timing and extent of humans' impact on the Earth.
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane naturally fluctuate, in part because of changes in the orbit of the Earth and the resulting variations in the amounts of sunlight. But human activity apparently thwarted expected decreases in the atmospheric concentrations of both gases. Leading the change was the revolutionary adoption, across both Europe and Asia, of agriculture and animal husbandry, Ruddiman said. Geochemist Jeff Severinghaus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, is wary. "I think it's very interesting," he says, "but very speculative. I doubt that ancient humans could have done that."
Analysis of air trapped in ice cores drilled from the Antarctic ice sheet show anomalous increases in carbon dioxide levels beginning 8,000 years ago — just as crop lands began to replace previously forested regions across Asia and Europe. About 5,000 years ago, the ice cores reflect a similarly anomalous rise in methane levels, this time tied to increased emissions from flooded rice fields, as well as burgeoning numbers of livestock, Ruddiman said.
Another surprising implication of Ruddiman's theory is that the warming before 1700 0.8 °C globally, but nearly 2 °C in far northern latitudes may have saved Canada from renewed glaciation. If levels of greenhouse gases had continued to fall after the most recent ice age, as they did after the three preceding ice ages, glaciers would once again have spread across north-eastern Canada about 4000 years ago.
Sources: The Associated Press, CNN, New Scientist (11 December 2003)
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