Global warming delayed next ice age by 100,000 years. Why that's bad news

Researchers examined the eight global ice ages Earth has experienced over the past 800,000 years and used climate models to determine the conditions that trigger a big freeze.

NASA/Chris Larsen, University of Alaska-Fairbanks/REUTERS
NASA's DHC-3 Otter plane flies in Operation IceBridge-Alaska surveys of mountain glaciers in Alaska in this image released on September 18, 2014.

Scientists have attributed a number of planetary changes – from rising sea levels in Vanuatu, to worsening air quality in India, to intensified storms and prolonged droughts across the world – to climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions.

Now, a new study suggests climate change may have delayed the next ice age by 50,000 to 100,000 years.

Human interference in the form of burning fossil fuels has irrevocably changed Earth's cycles, significantly delaying the next glacial cycle, according to a study published in the journal Nature.

“The bottom line is we are basically skipping a whole glacial cycle, which is unprecedented,” Andrey Ganopolski, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, and a lead author of the study, said in a statement. “It is mind-boggling that humankind is able to interfere with a mechanism that shaped the world as we know it.”

According to the scientists, Earth probably missed the inception of the next ice age by a narrow margin just before the onset of the industrial revolution due to increasing emissions of CO2

For the study, researchers examined the eight global ice ages Earth has experienced over the past 800,000 years and used climate models to determine the conditions that trigger a big freeze. They identified two major factors. One is insolation, the amount of sun's energy reaching the planet, which varies according to Earth's orbit around the sun and changes in Earth's axial tilt. The other is simply the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Were it not for high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Earth would be due for an ice age, a period of extreme cooling of the climate during which ice sheets cover large swatches of the land.

While it may appear to be good news that humans have successfully delayed the next ice age, it's actually not.

Ice ages play a significant role in shaping the landscape and leaving behind fertile soil for Earth's civilizations. They carve channels in Earth, leaving behind rivers and lakes. If the period between ice ages becomes too long, the planet may become relatively dry and barren, explains Gizmodo.

In fact, not only has global warming delayed the next ice age, human interference has irrevocably changed Earth's geological cycles, says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, another of the study's lead authors.

“Like no other force on the planet, ice ages have shaped the global environment and thereby determined the development of human civilization," Dr. Schellnhuber said in a statement. "Today it is humankind with its emissions from burning fossil fuels that determines the future development of the planet. This illustrates very clearly that we have long entered a new era, and that in the Anthropocene humanity itself has become a geological force."

"[I]t should be said clearly that global warming is not a positive trend. This is not an excuse to pollute," John D. Sutter, creator of CNN's 2 degree project, told CNN. "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."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.