And it's not just American scientists who are reporting that last year was the warmest on record, British scientists reported that it was the warmest year since 1850, and Japanese scientists reported that it was the warmest year since 1891. Keep in mind, 2014 had set the previous record for global surface temperatures, and 2015 just beat that record by a longshot. Part of what's going has to do with an unusually warm Pacific Ocean due to an El Nino that's going on right now, but that doesn't explain it all.
As Dr. Michael Mann explained to the New York Times, if the global climate weren't warming, the odds of setting two back-to-back record years would be about one chance in every 1,500 pairs of years. He added though, that because the planet is warming, the odds of setting back-to-back record years is really closer to one in ten now. The really scary part though, is that there's good evidence that this is nothing compared to what's to come.
This graph shows how global temperatures have historically, for over 400,000 years, tracked with carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere. There's a clear relationship between increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, and warmer temperatures in our planet's history. On the other hand, during cooler periods in Earth's history, the "Ice Ages", the atmosphere contained lower concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide. But, as this chart shows, those natural cycles were disrupted sometime around 10,000 years ago, right around the time that the last ice age ended.
Just as William F. Ruddiman argued in a paper from 2003, even though humans hadn't industrialized, we had already started having a major impact on the Earth's atmosphere and its natural cycles as far back as 8000 years ago. And that makes sense, because 8000 years ago is about the time that early agriculture appeared in Eurasia and humans started clearing, and burning, forests to make more space for agriculture and human settlements. In his research, Ruddiman points out that based on the natural Earth's natural cycles for methane and carbon over the last 400,000 years, we should see a decrease in both gases starting roughly 11,000 years ago and continuing for another several thousand years.
Instead, we see that carbon dioxide and methane levels started to rise in the atmosphere starting about 8000 years ago, marking a sharp movement away from what had occurred for over 400,000 years of Earth history. Recent research from the Anthropocene Working Group at the University of Leicester shows that humans have almost always had a noticeable impact on the planet's natural cycles, but our impact has been exceptional since the start of the industrial revolution. In fact, the 24 co-authors argue that we've entered a new and distinct geological era, just within the last 50 years. They call it the "Anthropocene era" from the greek word "Anthropos" meaning "man". The authors argue that even though we've been having an impact on our planet for thousands of years, it's only been during the last 50 years that human activity became the main factor driving almost every single natural process on Earth.
And that brings us back to the relationship between global surface temperatures, methane, and carbon dioxide. Because as these charts show, if atmospheric temperatures continue to follow the same sky-rocketing trend that methane and carbon dioxide have during the last century, we could very well be approaching the eve of extinction. And none of this is taking into account the greenhouse gases that are trapped in the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could be up to 21 quadrillion grams of organic carbon, and up to 400 billion tons of methane gases.
If we continue on this course, if we continue to spew methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the pursuit of cheap and short sighted economic growth, we can guarantee that our planet will continue to warm. And, as the planet warms, the Antarctic Ice Sheet will begin to rapidly melt, which means that up to 21 quadrillion grams of carbon, and up to 400 billion tonnes of methane would be released into the atmosphere. At that point, if humans are even still around, there will be literally nothing that we can do to stop a planetary mass extinction and to save humanity.
More and more scientists agree that natural processes don't drive the climate anymore, human activity does. And it's only human activity that can stop our march towards planetary extinction. Which means we need to put a price on carbon. And we need to aggressively convert our energy system to one that's 100% renewable, and we need to find carbon and methane-neutral ways of transporting our goods, building our infrastructure, and constructing our cities. The technology to achieve all of those goals already exists, and we now face a choice as a global society. We'll go extinct if we keep doing what's easy, and what's comfortable.
But we can save the planet, if we make bold decisions and take immediate action to minimize human impact, and thus restore the planet's own natural processes and the balance that existed for hundreds of thousands of years before the first human settlements.
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