UCSB Science Line
Sponge Spicules Nerve Cells Galaxy Abalone Shell Nickel Succinate X-ray Lens Lupine
UCSB Science Line
How it Works
Ask a Question
Search Topics
Our Scientists
Science Links
Contact Information
My class has been learning about climate changes, the greenhouse effect and global warming. I have a B.S. in geology so I understand that the climate has changed throughout geologic time. What we are wondering is if the current global warming of the planet is strictly due to human activity or is it a natural occurrence? How can this global warming result in a runaway greenhouse effect and what can be done to stop it? How will an increase in volcanic activity affect global warming? Will we be in for global cooling and another phase of the ice age? Thanks! We've been talking about this topic for a while and I want some input from scientists regarding the subject.
Question Date: 2007-01-12
Answer 1:

Hem, you just pushed one of my buttons! (I'm a paleobotanist who studies the effects of ancient climate, among other things...)

Okay, current Earth first. The rising temperatures of the present day are accompanied by an increasing CO2 concentration of the atmosphere. The carbon in CO2 can come from various sources, and there are two (important) isotopes, C-12 and C-13, and the different sources contain different amounts of each (there's C-14 also, but it's unimportant as far as this goes). Based on the change in the isotopic ratio of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we can identify the source of the rising CO2 levels: fossil fuels.

Now, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but is a very *weak* greenhouse gas, not enough to cause the climate changes we have been seeing on our own. However, according to computer climate models - which are *notoriously* difficult to test - the minor warming caused by increased CO2 will cause the evaporation of water from the oceans. Water vapor is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, and this positive feedback, according to the models, will magnify the small temperature increase induced by adding CO2 into the atmosphere. This will *not* produce a run-away greenhouse effect, i.e. the Earth will *not* boil away all of its oceans and become like Venus, but it could warm up more than the CO2 increase alone would indicate. As a result, we can assume that human CO2 emissions are warming the climate, but of the climate warming that we observe, there are many other possible explanations, the simplest being an increase in the brightness of the Sun (which we know is variable). How much of the current climate warming is due to human activity? That depends on which of the numerous climate models you believe - and, as I said, they're untested, so from a scientific standpoint, we don't actually know yet. What does this mean for the future? That depends on how much of current warming is due to human activity - as well as how the other factors that we have no control over, like solar luminosity, change.

Now, geologic influences - over the Earth's history, the primary source of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere has been volcanic activity. There are two major sinks, these being carbon burial (which is what creates fossil fuels), and carbonate precipitation, i.e. lime stones and dolomites. The Earth actually does have a Venusian atmosphere of CO2 locked away in carbonate rocks. Like most other gasses, CO2 also is more soluble in water the colder the water gets, so simply warming the climate will itself increase CO2concentrations because it will come out of solution in the oceans. This is also why warm temperatures raise rates of carbonate precipitation. An increase in volcanic activity will add CO2 to the atmosphere, and presumably warm the climate. As lime stones get subducted, their CO2 will be released into the atmosphere as the subducting slabs melt. Thus, there is a geological carbon cycle just as a biological one.

On Ice ages - the distribution of ice on the continents over the Earth's history has generally been due to rearrangements of continental positions. Anything that cuts off pole-equator circulation will create ice. A continent over the pole is ideal for this: Antarctica has been ice-covered for fifteen million years, and there is really no way that any amount of global warming, short of a vast increase in solar intensity (such as has never happened), would be able to melt the entire Antarctic ice sheet. In the Northern Hemisphere, there is an ocean over the pole, but North America and Eurasia are both drifting northward and in doing so cutting off the Arctic Ocean. At present, the Earth is in a marginal state, such that small changes in the shape of the Earth's orbit (aka Milankovitch cycles) can change whether there is ice on the northern continents or not. According to some models, CO2 emissions might affect this, and prevent the next ice age (although not the following one - CO2 does get removed from the atmosphere geologically, after all). The model in question however does not take into account the fact that the continents are still drifting north; as a consequence of that, every successive ice age has been a little bit deeper. There have been twenty so far, since we entered this meta-stable state 1.81 million years ago, the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary. At some point, the Arctic Ocean will be sufficiently cut off that the Northern Hemisphere will go into a permanent ice age, just as Antarctica has. This will not, of course, mean that all of North America will go under the ice, just as southern South America, Africa, and Australia, are ice-free today (except in the mountains, of course).

As for human remediation of greenhouse gas emissions, it is possible that we have already set in mot

Click Here to return to the search form.

University of California, Santa Barbara Materials Research Laboratory National Science Foundation
This program is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UCSB School-University Partnerships
Copyright © 2020 The Regents of the University of California,
All Rights Reserved.
UCSB Terms of Use