Wednesday, May 15, 2013

400 PPM – The Dawn of the SophomorEocene

This will be a short posting. A few weeks ago we left the Pleistocene and entered into a new geological Epoch that has yet to be named. Since in science and all of academia, priority is of the utmost importance, and scientists and academicians, in general, have been known to fight intellectual duals to the death over who gets credit for coming up with things first, I would like to plant my flag first and call this new geological Epoch the SophomorEocene after the Greek for “New Wise Fool”. You see, for the past 2.5 million years we have been in the Pleistocene Epoch, which was characterized by about a dozen or so Ice Ages, where vast ice sheets descended down from the poles to the mid-latitudes. Well, a few weeks ago we finally crossed over to a level of 400 PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in 2.5 million years, so those Ice Age days are now long gone. What happened is that the Earth has been cooling for the past 40 million years because plate tectonics created so many mountains, like the Himalayas, and erosion of those mountains sucked lots of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere down to a level of about 280 PPM (see How to Use Your IT Skills to Save the World for more details.) Then when the carbon dioxide levels dropped to about 280 PPM, the Milankovitch cycles were able to begin to initiate a series of a dozen or so Ice Ages. The Milankovitch cycles are caused by periodic minor changes in the Earth’s orbit and inclination that lead to periodic coolings and warmings. In general, the Earth’s temperature drops by about 150 Fahrenheit for about 100,000 years and then increases by 150 Fahrenheit for about 10,000 years. During the cooling period, we have an Ice Age because the snow in the far north does not fully melt during the summer and builds up into huge ice sheets that push down to the lower latitudes. Carbon dioxide levels also drop to about 180 ppm during an Ice Age because organic carbon compounds get trapped into ice-covered sediments containing organic material that does not get a chance to oxidize into carbon dioxide, which further keeps the planet in a deep freeze. Then during the 10,000 year warming periods, we have an interglacial period, like the current Holocene interglacial that we now find ourselves in, and the carbon dioxide levels rise again to about 280 ppm.

Now before geologists had fully figured this all out, for some reason they mistakenly thought that the last Ice Age was really the last Ice Age, and so they called the last 11,000 year period the Holocene Epoch, figuring that all of the Ice Ages were finally over. That was really a mistake. True, the last 11,000 years encompasses all of human history, probably because we were not in an Ice Age, but it really was just an interglacial period in the Pleistocene. So the Holocene really was just a typo in geological thought, and up until a few weeks ago, we really still were in the Pleistocene Epoch the whole time. But then we crossed over 400 PPM of carbon dioxide a few weeks back for the first time in about 2.5 million years and entered into the new SophomorEocene Epoch.

Figure 1 – The geological time scale (click to enlarge)

Figure 2 – Carbon dioxide levels during the Pleistocene varied between 180 and 280 PPM. When carbon dioxide levels were low we had an Ice Age and when they were high we had an interglacial period, like today’s climate.

Figure 3 – The level of carbon dioxide has been rising in the atmosphere over the past 150 years because we burned downed the forests and burned coal, oil, and natural gas at terrific rates. Something like this has never happened before in the Earth’s 4.567 billion year history.

Figure 4 – Carbon dioxide levels at Mauna Loa just broke 400 PPM.

The SophomorEocene Epoch will be very much like the earlier Eocene Epoch which lasted from 56 to 33.9 million years ago. The Eocene started off with a massive increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to over 500 PPM and a warming of the entire planet. All of the ice on the planet melted, so sea level rose to about 300 feet higher than it is today, and creatures in southern Illinois frolicked upon the new seacoast, while alligators in the Arctic Circle swam in tropical swamps. The very expensive real estate of the American East Coast was at bargain prices too because it was several hundred feet under water. Finally, the end of the Eocene was marked by a significant drop in carbon dioxide levels and a cooling of the planet, which returned to an icehouse climate, with ice reappearing at the poles and a rapidly growing Antarctic ice sheet.

So the SophomorEocene will be very much like the Eocene. As we burn up all of the remaining fossil fuels, carbon dioxide levels will continue to rise, causing huge expenses that civilization will have a hard time absorbing. Finally, when all of the fossil fuels are gone, the carbon dioxide levels will begin to drop due to natural processes, and we will once again return to Pleistocene-like conditions, with polar ice caps and a climate that we are used to. However, this cycle will probably take several hundred thousand years to complete. For more details, please see:

So What Can You Do?
Please read How to Use Your IT Skills to Save the World.

As an 18th-century liberal and 20th-century conservative, I would strongly encourage all 21st-century conservatives not to bet against science and become wise fools. You see, when it comes to climate change - saving money sure gets expensive.

Figure 5 – Congratulations, with lots of hard work, we all finally made it happen! The Logo for the SophomorEocene.

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Steve Johnston

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