Greenhouse gases highest for 800,000 years

OSLO (Reuters) - Greenhouse gases are at higher levels in the atmosphere than at any time in at least 800,000 years, according to a study of Antarctic ice on Wednesday that extends evidence that mankind is disrupting the climate.

Smoke billows from an iron and steel plant in Hefei, Anhui province December 9, 2007. REUTERS/Jianan Yu

Carbon dioxide and methane trapped in tiny bubbles of air in ancient ice down to 3,200 meters (10,500 ft) below the surface of Antarctica add 150,000 years of data to climate records stretching back 650,000 years from shallower ice drilling.

“We can firmly say that today’s concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane are 28 and 124 percent higher respectively than at any time during the last 800,000 years,” said Thomas Stocker, an author of the report at the University of Berne.

Before the Industrial Revolution, levels of greenhouse gases were guided mainly by long-term shifts in the earth’s orbit around the sun that have plunged the planet into ice ages and back again eight times in the past 800,000 years.

The U.N. Climate Panel last year blamed human activities, led by burning of fossil fuels that release heat-trapping gases, for modern global warming that may disrupt water and food supplies with ever more droughts, floods and heatwaves.

“The driving forces now are very much different from the driving forces in the past when there was only natural variation,” Stocker told Reuters of the study in the journal Nature by scientists in Switzerland, France and Germany.

The experts, working on the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, drilled down almost to bedrock in Antarctica. They recovered layers of ice formed by compressed snow, which can be counted much like the rings on trees.


Stocker said Chinese and Australian scientists were examining possibilities for drilling in parts of Antarctica with even deeper ice, in some places 4,500 meters thick, that could yield atmospheric records dating back 1.5 million years.

The study also found big natural shifts in carbon dioxide levels. “We find very conspicuous natural oscillations of carbon dioxide 770,000 years ago that bear the fingerprint of abrupt climate change during ice ages,” Stocker said.

And the Nature report also set a new record low for carbon dioxide at 172 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere about 667,000 years ago, about 10 ppm below the previous known low and giving an ancient natural range of 172 to about 300 ppm.

The study suggested that the low might be a sign that the oceans once soaked up more carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide levels are now at about 380 ppm.

Taken together, the data “allow us to learn more eventually about the carbon cycle and its responses to climate change.”

Temperatures in an ice age are about 5-6 Celsius (9 to 11 Fahrenheit) colder than now, already a mild period in earth’s history. Climate change could add a “best guess” of 1.8 to 4.0 Celsius this century, according to the U.N. panel.

The study also linked variations in methane to monsoons.

“The variations of methane concentration point to a strengthening of the monsoon system in the tropics in the most recent 400,000 years. These monsoon cycles have become stronger in the second half of this long time period,” Stocker said.

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