Humans Are Delaying the Next Ice Age by 50,000 Years, Researchers Say

January 14, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

The Quelccaya ice cap is the largest glaciated area in the tropics, in Peru
Photo credit: Edubucher/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“This illustrates very clearly that we have long entered a new era.”

We are all aware of the threats climate change pose to life as we know it. — warming temperatures, rising sea levels, severe droughts, food shortages, threats to freshwater supplies, and more extreme and severe weather. However, a new study suggests that our carbon footprint is causing this change to last much, much longer than it should.

Humanity has become such a powerful geological force that we are actually suppressing the beginning of the next ice age.

According to researchers of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has suppressed the next ice age, meaning it will now be twice as long before the planet undergoes another glacial cycle.

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“Even without man-made climate change we would expect the beginning of a new ice age no earlier than in 50,000 years from now — which makes the Holocene as the present geological epoch an unusually long period in between ice ages,” explained lead author Andrey Ganopolski.  “However, our study also shows that relatively moderate additional anthropogenic CO2-emissions from burning oil, coal and gas are already sufficient to postpone the next ice age for another 50,000 years.”

What this means it that, because of anthropogenic activities coupled with Earth’s natural cycle, we won’t see another ice age for 100,000 years — if the researchers are correct.  “The bottom line is that we are basically skipping a whole glacial cycle, which is unprecedented,” said Ganopolski.  “It is mind-boggling that humankind is able to interfere with a mechanism that shaped the world as we know it.”

According to the researchers, the onset of the past eight ice ages was due to a combination of both the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the amount of incoming solar radiation.  And using this relationship, researchers can predict when the next ice age will occur.

They used an Earth system model to simulate the atmosphere, ocean, ice sheets and global carbon cycle, as well as analyzed the effects of human-made CO2 emissions on ice volume in the Northern Hemisphere.  The results of the simulation showed that since anthropogenic CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a very long time, past and future emissions have a significant impact on when the next ice age will occur.

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"Our analysis shows that even small additional carbon emissions will most likely affect the evolution of the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets over tens of thousands of years, and moderate future anthropogenic CO2-emissions of 1000 to 1500 Gigatons of Carbon are bound to postpone the next ice age by at least 100,000 years,” said co-author Ricarda Winkelmann.

The beginning of an ice age is usually marked by periods of very low solar radiation in the summer, exactly what we have been and will continue to experience.  However, there is no evidence that an ice age is about to begin.  The question then becomes: Why not?  And this is what motivated the researchers — to determine everything involved in starting an ice age.

“Like no other force on the planet, ice ages have shaped the global environment and thereby determined the development of human civilization. For instance, we owe our fertile soil to the last ice age that also carved out today's landscapes, leaving glaciers and rivers behind, forming fjords, moraines and lakes. However, today it is humankind with its emissions from burning fossil fuels that determines the future development of the planet,” said co-author and director of Potsdam Institute Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

“This illustrates very clearly that we have long entered a new era, and that in the Anthropocene humanity itself has become a geological force. In fact, an epoch could be ushered in which might be dubbed the Deglacial,” said Schellnhuber.

Sounds like they are hinting at a planet that will no longer have any glaciers.  Scary stuff.

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