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Research casts light on planet's future

By John Dean - 11 Apr 2011 18:3:0 GMT
Research casts light on planet's future

(Image Credit: Martin Lipman). View of the Canadian Museum of Nature paleontology research camp located in Strathcona Fiord.

The study of fossilised mollusks could give scientists an invaluable insight into the way the world will respond to climate change.

Researchers at Californian university UCLA say that examining the fossils from 3.5 million years ago has allowed them to build a picture of how the world is reacting to current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a key contributor to global climate change.

The researchers estimate that the mollusk shells were formed four million years ago, during the early Pliocene epoch, at a time when summertime Arctic temperatures were 18 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today.

According to the team, the fossils, which came from within the Arctic Circle, formed at a time when the polar ice cap melted completely during the summer months.

Aradhna Tripati, a UCLA assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, said: ''Our data from the early Pliocene, when carbon dioxide levels remained close to modern levels for thousands of years, may indicate how warm the planet will eventually become if carbon dioxide levels are stabilised at the current value of 400 parts per million.''

The team believes that the research indicates that summertime sea ice may disappear altogether over the next 50 to 100 years. The work, funded by the National Science Foundation, is scheduled to be published in the April 15 print issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters, a leading journal in geoscience.

Scientists say that the poles act as an early warming system because they are the first regions on Earth to respond to global climate change. Prof Tripate said that the poles are currently exhibiting the most warming of any location on the planet, with the effect most severe in the Arctic.

She added: ''The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies the early Pliocene as the best geological analog for climate change in the 21st century and beyond. The climate-modelling community hopes to use the early Pliocene as a benchmark for testing models used for forecasting future climate change.''