Keeping pace with a fast-changing climate

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Maine’s senators have secured key funding to study the impact of ‘abrupt climate change’

The U.S. Senate’s recent approval of a sweeping energy bill is an important milestone in critical efforts to better understand the mechanisms affecting Earth’s climate. An amendment from Sen. Susan Collins and co-sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe will provide $60 million to advance scientific understanding of “abrupt climate change.”

This phenomenon is characterized by widespread changes that happen so quickly, adaptation is difficult or impossible. Well-documented in human history, these changes have often occurred in a decade or less, with the resulting impact on civilization and ecosystems devastating.

Increases in El Nio

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Abrupt climate change was a factor in the demise of the Mesopotamian empire, the Mayan empire and the Norse colonies. In more recent history, the phenomenon is exemplified by the increasing magnitudes and frequencies of El Nio in the past two decades.

Abrupt climate change has affected Maine. A geological examination of sediments from most Maine lakes or bogs would reveal evidence of the Younger Dryas event, a period of rapid, intense cooling that occurred between 11,500 years ago and 13,000 years ago.

‘Blink of an eye’

Some of the most significant change during Younger Dryas occurred in just one year. In the not-so-distant past, during the lifetimes of many of our great-grandparents, Maine saw the “Little Ice Age,” a period from 1300-1850, when conditions were unusually cold and Maine exported ice as a commercial product. We also have evidence of abrupt climate change events 2,500 years ago and 5,000 years ago.

In geological terms, these time frames are little more than the blink of an eye.

As the human impact on our natural environment increases, so does the urgency of our need to know more about abrupt climate change. Predicting the future based on past events requires a thorough understanding of those past events. Some of the necessary evidence is literally melting away as temperatures warm.

We are changing the Earth’s atmosphere at rates unprecedented in human history, pressing ever closer to the point where sudden changes may occur, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Greater ability to predict these events and understand their potential impact will allow us to make informed decisions about ways to mitigate its impact.

Recognize scenarios

The University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute is dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of climate change. UMaine scientists were among the first to recognize abrupt climate change scenarios in the vivid historical record that our environment provides us.

Our current research is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and private research concerns such as the Comer Science and Education Foundation. Sen. Collins has been particularly helpful in assisting UMaine scientists in securing climate change research funding through programs administered by NOAA.

Invaluable ally

Sen. Collins gained specific perspectives on our research activities two years ago when she, and two of her Senate colleagues, visited UMaine research sites in Antarctica and New Zealand. She has been an invaluable ally, over many years, in helping researchers further develop scientific insights into climate change.

Expanded research funding will represent a major step forward in this field. If it comes to fruition, this funding will support an academic consortium including UMaine, Columbia University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Washington. We will work with our colleagues at those institutions to apply the most current research techniques to examining historic climate variation in the northern and southern hemispheres.

UMaine’s contribution will be significant, expanding on the Climate Change Institute’s long history of research in this area. Our scientists, including faculty members and students at the graduate and undergraduate level, travel to the world’s most remote locations to chronicle changes in climate.

Remarkable history

We do this through various means, including the extraction of ice and sediment cores from locations in Maine and from places such as Antarctica, Greenland, New Zealand, Asia and the Patagonia region of Argentina. These cores provide a remarkable history of the climate over thousands of years, some of which is literally frozen in time.

Tree rings, stalactites and stalagmites, and glacial moraines – all part of the earth’s paleoclimatic record – also provide compelling evidence and useful information to understand the complex changes of Earth’s history. In the expanded program under consideration, we would widen our research’s geographic footprint, in Maine and across the world, perhaps increasing the likelihood of pinpointing causes of abrupt climate change at various past points.

UMaine is central in this field of research, and it is a recognized leader in climate science. We appreciate our outstanding senators, Collins and Snowe, who recognize the importance of climate change research and work hard to create the opportunities to expand these critical scientific horizons.

George H. Denton is Libra Professor of Geological Studies. Paul A. Mayewski is Professor of Earth Studies and director of the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

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