Ancient Warm Climate Research at WHOI

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Throughout Earth history, the complex interaction of solar, ocean, atmosphere, cryosphere, biosphere and mantle processes has produced a broad array of climate states, from a possible ice-covered “snowball earth” to the polar warmth and “hot tub”-like tropics of the mid-Cretaceous (~ 91 million years ago) and Early Eocene (~ 52 million years ago). Although we talk about the “long" timescales of pre-Pleistocene paleoclimatology, the transitions between cooler and warmer climate states have not always been gradual. The extreme and abrupt global climate change of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (55 million years ago) is one example.

Why study Earth’s climate tens of millions of years ago?

Ultimately, the WHOI Paleoceanography group’s interest in understanding the nature and causes of past warm climates stems from concern over modern global warming. Some of the most important earth science questions of our time relate to understanding how human activities may be modifying current and future climates.

  • Will Earth enter another extreme warm climate state due to rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations?
  • If so, what kinds of biota are likely to adapt/evolve and which face extinction?
  • Will Earth enter a permanent El Niño-like state or will the system exhibit variability that allows for periods of increased and decreased marine productivity? 
  • Will storm intensity and frequency change as climate warms?
  • Is the CO2 sensitivity of current numerical climate models accurate?
  • How will rainfall patterns change as tropical sea surface temperatures increase?

It is only by looking at past warm climates that we can test our theories and models of how the earth system evolves when forced by substantial anthropogenic greenhouse gas increases. Follow the links on this page to learn more.


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Last updated October 8, 2006
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