Climate Change- A Geological Perspective

If there was ever a subject to polarize a room, it’s this one. Just ask a group of people if they enjoyed the mild winter and many will attribute it to ‘global warming’.

This is incorrect. Our past winter was similar to the ‘super’ El Nino winter in 1998. And since 1998, temperature data indicates temperature is decreasing and not warming! The fact is, for the last 120 years we have been in an interglacial warming period and the global temperature is where a geologist would expect it to be.

There is much confusion about Global Warming. It has been a highly politicized subject, distorted by activists and special interest lobby groups (e.g. Tides Foundation). Politicians push hidden agendas past us on the basis of global warming or climate change. In President Obama’s Climate Change Action Plan (June 2015) he says ‘no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change’ as a basis for investing billions of dollars in solar power. But is this a visionary investment or a political sound bite? Even the Pope has weighed in and wants ‘every living person to accept shared moral responsibility for climate change’.

However, the need is much more fundamental. There is a moral responsibility for all of us to understand ‘climate change’ issues and how these should shape energy policy.

I was in Calgary a few weeks ago to attend the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists annual convention. I had the pleasure of listening to a luncheon talk by Dr. Gary Smith called Climate Change- Fact or Fiction. This talk has been uploaded to our website, and we encourage all to take the time to listen to Dr. Smith. What I like about this presentation is that it is very well document and well referenced. And it is pure, unpolitical science. Much of this blog has been inspired by Dr. Smith’s research and the data he presented.

It’s hard to cover all the climate change issues in one short blog. What I have presented is based on my 35 years working as a professional geologist and is my geological perspective on climate change.  I am hoping this blog will serve as a primer for the Climate Change videos we have uploaded to our website from Dr. G. Smith and also Dr. P. Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace.

I will start by saying climate change is not only a natural phenomenon but it has been the fundamental catalyst in the evolution of man.

As geologists, we know the Earth’s natural climate has been changing since the earliest of time. There have been at least 5 major periods of glaciation in our planet’s last 500 million year history.

During the most recent glacial event, the Laurentian Ice Age from 120,000- 11,000 years ago, massive continental ice sheets covered most of Canada and North America.  In fact, 2km of ice covered the city of Toronto, where 6 million now live, and over 3km of ice covered Montreal.

Many animal species were driven to extinction by this ice age.  Humanity adapted by changing food sources from plant, which could not survive the cold temperatures, to animal. Humans became proficient at hunting, especially large animals that provided more calories.  This required developing more sophisticated hunting skills, as well as better weapons and butchering tools.

Around 11,000 years ago, temperatures rose over 5 Celsius (C) and the melting Laurentian ice sheets caused world sea levels to rise 35 m. This is referred to as the Holocene interglacial period and is informally called ‘the Age of Man’.

Changing climate was the catalyst for advancement of European agriculture and domestication of plants and animals. Humans began herding animals and gathering in communities.

There were four Holocene warm periods in the past 11,000 years: the Holocene Climate Optimum, the Roman Optimum, the Medieval Warm Period and our present day Post Industrial Period (Figure 1). The temperature only changed by ~1 C during this interglacial ‘warm’ period but this produced significant changes in human history.

Dansgaard et al. & Schonwiese

From around 8000 years ago (ie. Holocene Climate Optimum), increasing global temperature lead to the desertification of a wet, lush North Africa into the dry Sahara. This was the catalyst for the migration of North African tribes into wet, fertile Nile River Valley to form the early civilizations of Egypt.  Similarly, in the Roman Climate-Optimum period around two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire expanded through the conquest of Europe and Middle East. This was followed by the Medieval Warm period which marked the Viking era. Vikings established settlements on Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland. However, the Vikings abandoned their settlements when the climate became ~1.5 C cooler in the Little Ice Age and the ability to farm and fish became challenged.

The climate during the Little Ice Age, from around 1450-1850, has been well documented. In Charles Dickens era, temperatures in London frequently hit -20 C and paintings from this period show the Thames River with 2 m of ice on it (Figure 2). London was a scene for ice fairs on the Thames River!

Little Ice Age

The Post Industrial Warm period began in the late 1800’s and this is what we are in today (Figure 3).

Post Industrial Period

You can see in Figure 3 above, since 1860 the planets temperature has gone up by around 0.9 C. Remember, this is same amount of warming as in the other previous interglacial Holocene ‘warm’ periods (Figure 1).

It is very significant that during the Holocene warm period, global temperature today is no warmer today than it was 6000 years ago.

Our planet’s climate has been constantly changing. So if it’s not man, what is responsible for these climate changes?

In the early 1920s, a Serbian geophysicist/astronomer, Milutin Milankovitch, realized that the earth’s orbit determined climatic patterns of the planet. He calculated that changes in the Earth’s rotational axis and its elliptical orbit around the sun, significantly affect the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth.  These orbital and axial variations influence the initiation of climate change in long-term natural cycles of ‘ice ages’ and ‘warm periods’ known as ‘glacial’ and ‘interglacial’ periods. Modern scientists recognize that this closely matches the 100,000 year pattern of ice ages and have called these Milankovitch Cycles.

In addition to Milankovitch Cycles, we know that solar output, interstellar dust, cloud cover (ie. water vapor), and volcanic activity play roles in our climate changes.

The big question at this point should be, if climate change is a natural phenomenon, does human activity have any effect on our climate?

From the climate change advocates perspective, climate change has been defined as ‘a change in global climate patterns from pre-industrial times (ie. early 1900s) onwards, attributed to the increased levels of CO2 produced by the use of fossil fuels’. And the key tenant being CO2 from fossil fuels is causing climate of planet to warm.

However, global temperature data from University of Alabama (2015) indicates since the large El Nino winter in 1998, the global temperature is not increasing but has decreased by about ~0.2 C. This is also illustrated in Figure 3, temperature data from the Hadley Center for Climate Change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says that man has been the dominant cause of CO2 emissions since 1950 and this CO2 is causing the planet to warm. However, this is NOT what temperature vs CO2 data indicates.

Historical CO2 vs temperature data over the past 400 million years indicate CO2 reacts in response to temperature and not the other way around!

In a ground breaking paper on the Vostok Ice Core, Petit et al. (1999) observe that CO2 lags temperature during the onset of glaciations by several thousand years. This is completely logical as atmospheric CO2 concentration is governed by time-temperature relationships. As the temperature of sea water, the primary source of CO2, goes up, so does the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The converse happens when the temperature goes down.

But is man contributing to natural CO2 cycles and is it harmful?

There IS evidence for increase man made CO2 in the last 15 years. CO2 data from the Vostok ice core in Antarctica ranges from 180 ppm in glacial to 280 ppm in interglacial periods over the last 400,000 years. Current CO2 levels are around 400 ppm, according to Mauna Loa Observatory. This difference from 280 ppm to 400 ppm is likely man made. The difference between interglacial CO2 levels (ie ~280) and today’s level (ie 400) is ~+0.01%, which is not significant or even anomalous in the geological perspective. The average atmospheric CO2 over the last 500 million years has been around 2000 ppm.

What level of atmospheric CO2 would be harmful to man? Dr. G Smith believes that if the CO2 level was 25x higher than it is today, we would only feel sleepy. In the history of Earth, the highest CO2 level recorded was ~500 million years ago and it was only 20X higher than today. The world has never had CO2 levels that would be harmful to man.

Studies indicate the optimum CO2 level for plant growth is around 2000 ppm, or around 5 times where it is today. And remember 2000 ppm is the average CO2 level over the last 500 million years.

There are plenty of studies on increased growth of plants with higher concentrations of CO2. In 1977, research scientists, Idso and Kimball, grew 4 pine trees in identical conditions with exception of amount of CO2. They found that when they doubled the amount of CO2, the height of the trees almost doubled. This is why we use CO2 generators in greenhouses, to get the plants grow.

One interesting thing has been observed since 1980. As the level of CO2 has gone up globally, nature has responded through the ‘greening’ of desert areas. Data from 1982-2010 presented by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSRIO), indicates foliage cover in the harsh desert outback has substantially increased from ‘desert greening from rising CO2’.

Sadly, the IPCC has really misrepresented this point. The fact is, CO2 is absolutely critical to plant life and, as such, to human survival. It is one of the most important nutrients for life on this planet!

So climate change is a natural phenomenon. And man’s carbon footprint is relatively small. In the postindustrial era, we have increased CO2 through man’s activity by only 0.01%.

Mother Nature’s footprint is much larger, much more significant.  Milankovitch cycles, solar activity, cloud cover, and volcanic eruption all pay a significant role in our climate’s change.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to reduce emissions. This is a separate issue. Slash-and-burn vegetation clearing of rain forests, sulfur dioxides from factories, nitrogen oxides and smog from traffic, ammonia from agricultural activities, are dangerous pollutants that reduce our quality of life. We should be targeting reduction of these dangerous emissions.

We can reduce dangerous emissions by switching to cleaner burning fossil fuels (ie. natural gas in Compressed Natural Gas cars), developing renewable energies and energy transfer technologies, and stop burning of the rain forests. This will not be an easy process. It is not just a matter of going ‘solar’, as the US president thinks. Solar works in some areas and not others. There are some significant challenges with solar energy transfer. It will take time, money and considerable technology development to overcome these.

In the meantime, there is a need for open dialogue, without political bias, to find the political middle ground on energy issues.

Next blog will discuss pipelines and the hypocrisy of Canada energy policy.


8 Replies to “Climate Change- A Geological Perspective”

  1. Yes climate change is a natural event on earth. The recent climate disasters are not due to man. There an overstated opinion on our contribution so far, but our contribution could increase percentage wise going forward. Part of the problem is that both sides give persuasive arguments for their side.
    I agree wholeheartedly that we shouldn’t sit around to see who is right. With the increase in technology we can do our part to not abdicate ur responsibility as caretakers of the planet. I firmly agree that it won’t be solved by politicians. Thank you for the article.

  2. Thank you for your comment. We are glad you enjoyed the read.

  3. Thanks for your interest, Graydon. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  4. Thanks for your interest and comments, Pat. Yes, we must get to the ‘political middle’ in all of this discussion. There is a group out of University of Texas, Austin, that is all about this mindset. I’ll be referring to ‘the Switch Energy Project’ in future blogs. Best regards, Mike

  5. You are so interesting! I don’t suppose I’ve read anything like this before. So wonderful to find somebody with some original thoughts on this topic. Really.. many thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that is required on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!|

  6. Thank you for your comments Laurette. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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