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Ice age to warming - and back?

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2004

The Little Ice Age and "the 8,200-year event" are not exactly household terms. Once only a handful of climate scientists puzzled over these episodes of abrupt climate change. Now, the topic is getting close scrutiny from the Pentagon, the halls of Congress, and even Hollywood - where a disaster movie set for release in May depicts a sudden deep freeze.

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One reason for all the interest? While policymakers have worried long and hard about global warming, which might raise Earth's temperature 1.4 to 5.8 degrees C by century's end, a growing body of evidence suggests natural forces could just as easily plunge Earth's average temperatures downward. In the past, the planet's climate has changed 10 degrees in as little as 10 years.

That may not sound like much. But the last time the planet was 10 degrees colder, it was still in an ice age. "There's the very real potential of the climate system changing dramatically and rapidly" in ways that lie outside modern human experience, says Mark Eakin, who heads the paleoclimatology program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The possibility of a sudden freeze doesn't mean mankind can relax efforts to curb global warming, many scientists warn. Indeed, given the complexity of Earth's climate, human activities that spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere may increase the potential for an abrupt cooling.

For example: Regional and global climates have undergone quick and dramatic changes even after what would appear to be only gentle prodding by natural influences, Dr. Eakin says. In many cases, that prodding has been far less severe than the changes humans have wrought via industrial emissions of carbon dioxide.

"In the absence of better knowledge, we have to assume that humans are making abrupt climate change more likely - not because humans are worse than nature, it's just because we're changing the system," says Richard Alley, a Penn State University paleoclimatologist. Dr. Alley led a 2002 National Research Council panel that examined abrupt climate change and laid out recommendations for research priorities and possible adaptation strategies.

Policymakers are beginning to pay attention. Last week, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee sent to the full Senate a bill that would give NOAA $60 million for research into the causes of abrupt change. The work could help provide more accurate modeling of past and future climate change, perhaps yielding clues that could serve as an early warning to abrupt change.

Meanwhile, a report prepared for the Defense Department bids Pentagon planners to elevate the study of abrupt climate change "beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern." The study was prepared by the Global Business Network, a corporate strategic planning and consulting firm in Emeryville, Calif.

These actions are fueled by a growing body of evidence over the past five years that Earth's climate has a history of rapid variations - and that if the paleoclimate record is any indication, this history repeats itself. Some periods, like the Little Ice Age, would cause hardships today, but industrial countries probably could adapt, researchers say. The Little Ice Age lasted roughly from 1300 to around 1870 and dropped temperatures in parts of the northern hemisphere by about 1 degree C.

To the casual observer, that drop may seem small. But from a climate and a social standpoint "it was huge," says Lloyd Keigwin Jr., a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Mass.

The year without summer

The Little Ice Age - actually three distinct cooling periods - chilled northern Europe and parts of the United States. It sent the Vikings back to Europe from their outposts in Greenland. Farms in Norway were covered with glaciers and crop failures around Europe caused famines and spikes in grain prices.

In 1816, New England experienced its "year without summer," when many crops failed. One researcher argues that the storm that wiped out a large part of the Spanish Armada - and made Sir Francis Drake's job easier - was part of the Little Ice Age pattern.