Ice Age delayed by humans — by 100,000 years

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The planet has a rhythm, a heartbeat, where it cools and warms over thousands of years. The rhythm is going off beat.

Could this be good news about global warming? Latest research suggests that human intervention has postponed the beginning of the next ice age.

The researchers suggest that even moderate human interference with the planet’s natural carbon balance, through activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, might delay the next glacial cycle by 100,000 years.

Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany have found that the Earth’s last eight ice ages can be explained by a relation between insolation — solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface — and CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. This also helps to predict future glacial cycles.

“As far as the human power is concerned, the main lesson is that by burning fossil fuel over just one century we will affect climate for at least 100,000 years or even more,” lead researcher Andrey Ganopolski tells CNN.

“Although it has no practical importance whether the next ice age will begin in 50,000 or 100,000 years from now, the fact that we can alter such a remote future clearly shows that humans already have a power to affect the future on geological time scales.”

In the current climate, Earth will also be looking rather different. “Like no other force on the planet, ice ages have shaped the global environment and thereby determined the development of human civilization,” co-author and PIK-Director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber says in a statement.

“For instance, we owe our fertile soil to the last ice age that also carved out today’s landscapes, leaving glaciers and rivers behind, forming fjords, moraines [soil and rock deposits] and lakes. However, today it is humankind with its emissions from burning fossil fuels that determines the future development of the planet.”

Wait, what exactly is an ice age?

Warm and cold periods that lead to ice ages occur in regular patterns called Milankovitch cycles. These cycles occur because the Earth’s orbit around the sun is not constant. All of these changes result in varying amounts of energy (i.e. heat) that the planet receives from the sun, determining how warm or cold the planet becomes.

When greenhouse gases are high, the Earth is warm, when they are low, the Earth is cool. When these changes are occurring naturally, they take thousands to tens of thousands of years to occur, whereas humans have caused this to occur in just over 100 years.

So, the delaying of an ice age is actually a bad sign?

Yes. Global warming has reached a critical stage. If temperatures climb 2 degrees Celsius, low-lying islands would be wiped out as seas continue to rise, pushing many plants and animals toward extinction, increasing the intensity of droughts, floods, heat waves and storms. And in a historical moment, ministers from 195 countries at COP21, the climate change conference in Paris in December 2015, pledged to act to keep temperatures low.

John D. Sutter, columnist for CNN and creator of CNN’s 2 degree project, warns against becoming complacent about global warming. “This research sheds interesting light on how humans have influenced and continue to influence the climate. It’s a complicated relationship and our knowledge is always evolving.

“But it should be said clearly that global warming is not a positive trend. This is not an excuse to pollute. As we pump carbon into the atmosphere at an alarming rate we are seriously jeopardizing the viability of the planet and putting ourselves in very real danger.”

Adds Ganopolski: “Right now the problem is global warming, not cooling, and the only right things we can do is to reduce CO2 emission.”

He also suggests humans are more powerful than they realize. “The bottom line is that we are basically skipping a whole glacial cycle, which is unprecedented.

“It is mind-boggling that humankind is able to interfere with a mechanism that shaped the world as we know it.”