A warming period millions of years ago offers possible clues to our future

Climate Cast
Every Thursday, MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner joins The Daily Circuit to talk about the latest research on our changing climate and the consequences we're seeing here in Minnesota and worldwide.
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Our planet went through a dramatic rise in greenhouse gases like this one about 55 million years ago, when carbon levels rose sharply. On Thursday's Climate Cast, Kerri Miller and MPR News' Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner talked about research into that ancient warming period and what it might mean for our future. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation:

Kerri Miller : We both read some very interesting research from the Smithsonian about a period in the earth's history when the atmosphere warmed quite quickly and now what scientists can understand about what's happening now from back then.

Paul Huttner: We study history to learn about the future. Climate change really is no different. This happened 55 million years ago. It's called the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum). It lasted 20,000 years. During that time, temperatures rose 7-14 degrees Fahrenheit on the earth. Global carbon dioxide increased massively, sea levels rose up to 65 feet. The cause is still a little uncertain. We don't know exactly what caused it. It could've been volcanoes, peat fires, releases of other greenhouse gases like methane — all possibilities. The change took thousands of years to happen and carbon emissions are rising 10 times faster than they did during that period. We're doing to our atmosphere now in 100 years what took us thousands of years to do in the past.

Miller: One of the things that stood out in that piece to me was what happened to the oceans. The oceans became quite acidified and the marine life dies off and there was quite an impact on the plant life on land as well.

Greenland ice
This 2009 file photo shows Ice Fjord of Ilulissat in Greenland. The Greenland ice sheet has lost 1,500 billion tons of ice since 2000.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Huttner: Exactly. What happens is the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They're doing that now, they've always done it. As you increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, you absorb that into the oceans. That acidifies the oceans, turns it into carbonic acid — think soda pop. Of course life has a tough time living in an acidic environment like that. The other thing they studied and saw is that native plants died off and tended to migrate northward. Southern species moved north — things like bean trees, mesquite trees from the Sonora desert moved to places like Wyoming. Plants returned with the onset of a cooler climate, which is interesting, and also tells us that perhaps slowing down climate change could help mitigate some of these effects. There's a gentleman named Scott Wing who works with the Natural History Museum, he's a paleobiologist, and he studied this PETM for the last 20 years or so. He has some interesting insight on how changes in the past might affect what's happening today in our atmosphere.

Scott Wing (on tape): I can see these events that have already happened and you can come to the realization that the timing of the earth processes that control climate and the carbon cycle are very slow and they don't reverse themselves. We're not only making very rapid changes but we're making permanent changes — or what will seem for all intents and purposes like permanent changes. If you tell people that wherever we are in 2100 or 2200 is going to be the new normal for the next 100,000 years, I think they would probably be shocked to hear that.

Miller : We should note that after this occurred, this dramatic warming, the atmosphere then cooled again, right?

Huttner: It did indeed. We've gone through interglacial periods in between. Climate change, we know, is constant. It has happened over the years. The thing that's alarming now is the changes in the greenhouse gases and the chemistry of the atmosphere are happening so quickly and they parallel these warmer periods we've seen in the past. You look at history, you look at what we're doing now, and all the climate models say we're headed for a much warmer planet in the next 100 years or so.

Miller: The upside for some investors, they're watching what's happening with carbon emissions, and investors are looking at predictions, like from the World Bank, which says that the planet is on track to warm by four degrees by the end of the century and they are making some investments on that science.

Huttner: This was an interesting piece in Bloomberg this week. Investors are basically betting that climate change is inevitable — Wall Street firms investing in businesses that will profit from a hotter planet. That seems cynical, but it's really increasingly logical if you look at what's happening with governments, with where we are. There's already a certain amount of climate change loaded into the atmosphere with the gases that are up there, and if you look at what governments are doing, the logical conclusion is that a certain amount of warming will occur. Businesses are looking at that and they're saying there's profit to be made here as the planet warms up. Which business sectors are going to be the most profitable?

Miller : They were writing about water rights and the companies that acquire water rights, but also the companies that are making technology to maximize what may be increasingly scarce — water — in some parts of the world.

Corn stalks
Healthy corn grows under the sun at Zabel Seed in Plainview Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. Farmer Michael Zabel says he's been lucky to have healthy corn this year considering other farmers are dealing with drought conditions a few miles south of him. Zabel believes he'll have a very good yield this year.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Huttner: There's one of these hedge funds called Water Asset Management LLC. What they're doing is buying water rights and interests in these water treatment companies around the world. We know that more evaporation means drought, and prolonged drought, in parts of the world, and that of course puts stress on water supplies. These companies that can go in and maximize what water is there are doing very, very well. That's one of the investment opportunities. Another interesting one I found was the companies that are working to mitigate coastal flooding. These big engineering firms. As sea level rises and we get more superstorm Sandys, those companies are getting a lot of business.

Miller : It is an a opportunity to see some of the ingenuity that is put up against a problem that the world is hoping to address and trying to mitigate.

Huttner: The UN has estimated that we'll be spending $130 billion a year to adapt with new infrastructure to climate change by 2030. There is a lot of gloom and doom out there. There are going to be some very detrimental changes as the planet warms, but there are also opportunities, and of course investors look for opportunities — that's no different. It has always been that way and I suspect it always will be. Folks who still maybe don't believe climate change is real follow the money because it's going into areas that are trying to profit from a warmer planet.

Miller: If the past is informing us about the future, our agricultural sector, our recreational sector are going to be affected by what happens here. Minnesota leaders have got to begin planning for that.

Huttner: Absolutely, and every indication is that will put more stress on our lakes, water supplies in Minnesota, our aquifers under the ground. Farming may benefit in the short term, but eventually could suffer as well. We all know about winter recreation with less snow. This year has been pretty good, but we've had some pretty snow-free winters these past few years.


"World Without Ice." An exploration of the PETM evidence. One scientist explains, "That's what makes the PETM story so interesting. You have the end result. You can see what did happen." (National Geographic)

Global Warming: Who loses — and who wins? In a 2007 article, journalist Gregg Easterbrook surveyed the landscape of profit and loss in a changing climate. (The Atlantic)

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