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Out of the Past

Global Warming isn't just happening now?it's happened in the past, as well. Is there anything we can learn from those times that will help us today?

In New Scientist, Fred Pearce writes, "It was the biggest climate event of the last 10,000 years and caused the most dramatic change in the weather since humans began farming. And it may yet hold important lessons about climate change in the 21st century."

He's referring to the fact that ice cores have revealed that 8,000 years ago, a huge glacier in Canada melted, spilling huge amounts of fresh water into the North Atlantic, which shut down the Gulf Stream and cooled parts of the northern hemisphere for more than a hundred years. The same thing is happending to the Gulf Stream today.

According to Pearce, "?Something similar could happen with equal abruptness as the planet warms under human influence. The film The Day After Tomorrow [based on Whitley and Art Bell?s book The Coming Global Superstorm] which portrays such a scenario, may have exaggerated?but not by much."

In more recent history, researcher Jason Box of the Byrd Polar Research Center, spent months scouring through old expedition logs and reports, and reviewing 70-year-old maps and photos before making a surprising discovery: He found that the effects of the current warming and melting of Greenland?s glaciers that is worrying the world's climate scientists today also occurred in the decades following an abrupt warming in the 1920s.

This evidence reinforces the belief that glaciers and other bodies of ice are exquisitely hyper-sensitive to climate change and bolsters the concern that rising temperatures will speed the demise of that island's ice fields, hastening sea level rise.

Box, who worked with co-researcher Adam herrington, says, "What's novel about this is that we found a wealth of information from low-tech sources that has been overlooked by most researchers." Modern researchers rely heavily on information from satellites and other modern sources, such as ice cores.

The fact that recent changes to Greenland's ice sheet mirror its behavior nearly 70 years ago is increasing researchers' confidence and alarm as to what the future holds. Recent warming around the frozen island actually lags behind the global average warming pattern by about 1-2 degrees, but if it fell into synch with global temperatures in a few years, the massive ice sheet might pass its "threshold of viability"?a tipping point where the loss of ice couldn't be stopped.

"Once you pass that threshold," Box says, "the current science suggests that it would become an irreversible process. And we simply don't know how fast that might happen, how fast the ice might disappear."

Greenland?s ice sheet contains at least 10% of the world's freshwater AND it has been losing more than 24 cubic miles of ice annually for the last five years. 2007 was a record year for glacial melting there.

Art credit: gimp-savvy.com

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