Pliocene beech fossils in Antarctica when CO2 was at similar level to today point to planet’s future
Trees growing near the South Pole, sea levels 20 metres higher than now, and global temperatures 3C-4C warmer. That is the world scientists are uncovering as they look back in time to when the planet last had as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it does today.
Using sedimentary records and plant fossils, researchers have found that temperatures near the South Pole were about 20C higher than now in the Pliocene epoch, from 5.3m to 2.6m years ago.
Many scientists use sophisticated computer models to predict the impacts of human-caused climate change, but looking back in time for real-world examples can give new insights.
The Pliocene was a “proper analogy” and offered important lessons about the road ahead, said Martin Siegert, a geophysicist and climate-change scientist at Imperial College London. “The headline news is the temperatures are 3-4C higher and sea levels are 15-20 metres higher than they are today. The indication is that there is no Greenland ice sheet any more, no West Antarctic ice sheet and big chunks of East Antarctic [ice sheet] taken,” he said.