Humans are delaying the next ice age

Human-made climate change is exerting such geological force that it is delaying the onset of the next age, according to scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

The study, which was published this week in the scientific journal Nature, found that even without human interference, the new ice age would begin no earlier than in 50,000 years from now. But when the scientists factored human-induced climate change – caused by CO2 emissions released from burning fossil fuels – into the equation, it is enough to postpone the next ice age for a further 50,000 years.

“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,” explains lead author Andrey Ganopolski.

The study focuses on the relationship between summer insolation and atmospheric CO2 as one of the key factors preceding the formation of a glacial cycle. The scientists then analysed the effects of human-made CO2 emissions – which has an extremely long life-time in the atmosphere – on the ice volume in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Our analysis shows that even small additional carbon emissions will most likely affect the evolution of the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets over tens of thousands of years, and moderate future anthropogenic CO2-emissions of 1000 to 1500 Gigatonnes of carbon are bound to postpone the next ice age by at least 100.000 years,” says co-author Ricarda Winkelmann.

Ice ages are a crucial geological force on our planet and have shaped today’s landscapes with their fertile soil and abundant water sources. “However, today it is humankind with its emissions from burning fossil fuels that determines the future development of the planet,” warns co-author and PIK director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber says.


Image credit: Philip, flickr/Creative Commons

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