ScienceDaily (Jan. 14, 2011) — The magnitude of climate change during Earth's deep past suggests that future temperatures may eventually rise far more than projected if society continues its pace of emitting greenhouse gases, a new analysis concludes.
Building on recent research, the study examines the relationship between global temperatures and high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere tens of millions of years ago. It warns that, if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their current rate through the end of this century, atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas will reach levels that existed about 30 million to 100 million years ago, when global temperatures averaged about 29 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels.
Kiehl said that global temperatures may gradually rise over centuries or millennia in response to the carbon dioxide. The elevated levels of carbon dioxide may remain in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, according to recent computer model studies of geochemical processes that the study cites.
The study also indicates that the planet's climate system, over long periods of times, may be at least twice as sensitive to carbon dioxide than currently projected by computer models, which have generally focused on shorter-term warming trends. This is largely because even sophisticated computer models have not yet been able to incorporate critical processes, such as the loss of ice sheets, that take place over centuries or millennia and amplify the initial warming effects of carbon dioxide.
"If we don't start seriously working toward a reduction of carbon emissions, we are putting our planet on a trajectory that the human species has never experienced," says Kiehl, a climate scientist who specializes in studying global climate in Earth's geologic past. "We will have committed human civilization to living in a different world for multiple generations."