Climate change: Carbon emissions haven’t been this high in over 66 million years

We know CO2 emissions are warming the planet and we know that climate change is going to cause huge, huge problems for the majority of Earth’s ecosystems. We also know that 2016 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record by some margin, and I mean “hottest” in the literal negative sense, rather than the figurative hypey one.

What we didn’t know for sure until now is quite how unprecedented our annual carbon emissions are, but a new study has robbed us of that blissfully ignorant state. It turns out that even the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) – widely considered a plausible parallel to current emissions, and a period of planetary warming – didn’t come close to matching the kind of output we’re doing now.

The PETM saw the planet’s temperature rise by 5°C over a few thousand years, and it was assumed that we could at least look back and compare current output to the past… even if that past was 56 million years ago. A new study from the University of Hawaii – which measured stable oxygen and carbon isotopes from sediment cores gathered from the New Jersey coast – discovered that, even during this period of massive warming, between 0.6 and 1.1 billion tonnes of carbon was being released into the atmosphere every year.carbon_emissions_higher_than_since_dinosaurs_died

That may sound like a lot – and it is – but it’s peanuts compared to what we’re doing now. We put around 10 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year.

The upshot is that we’re in genuinely uncharted territory, and our most optimistic predictions for what this means for life on Earth are not good at all. “Our carbon release rate is unprecedented over such a long time period in Earth’s history, it means that we have effectively entered a ‘no-analogue’ state,” explained Professor Richard Zeebe, who led the University of Hawaii’s study. “The present and future rate of climate change and ocean acidification is too fast for many species to adapt, which is likely to result in widespread future extinctions.”

So the fastest release of carbon into the atmosphere since the dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago was considerably slower than the rate we’re putting it out now. If you weren’t panicking before, it’s definitely the time to consider it.

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Images: Mikael Miettinen and Bryan O’Toole used under Creative Commons

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