Federal legislation introduced Monday would authorize $60 million for research on abrupt climate change, including studies of melting glaciers by University of Maine scientists.

The bill, authored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, would fund research into sudden and dramatic shifts in temperature, precipitation and wind patterns that throughout history have upset natural ecosystems and even wiped out entire civilizations.

Climate change has become a hot topic among policymakers and the public, but the focus has generally been on gradual global warming, Collins said.

In recent years, scientists have uncovered evidence in glacial ice, lake sediments and other natural environments that climate patterns can switch on and off much more quickly than previously thought.

Climate shifts can occur in just a few years and then last for several hundred years. One such sudden shift is believed to have resulted in the disappearance of Norse colonies from Greenland.

“If you knew that over the next few years that the East Coast of North America was going to be drier than it had been in the past 20 years, there are a lot of planning decisions that would change,” said Paul Mayewski, director of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.

The federal money would fund research at a consortium of institutions led by the Climate Change Institute.

If the funding comes through, Mayewski said, one priority will be to gather ice cores from parts of the world where the climate is warming and ice is melting quickly.

Ice cores drilled from those glaciers allow scientists to go back in time and reconstruct, year by year, details of the historical climate.

“Once those glaciers are gone, the records are gone,” Mayewski said.

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