Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Man-made global warming started with ancient hunters

05.07.2010
Even before the dawn of agriculture, people may have caused the planet to warm up, a new study suggests.
Mammoths used to roam modern-day Russia and North America, but are now extinct--and there's evidence that around 15,000 years ago, early hunters had a hand in wiping them out. A new study, accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), argues that this die-off had the side effect of heating up the planet.

"A lot of people still think that people are unable to affect the climate even now, even when there are more than 6 billion people," says the lead author of the study, Chris Doughty of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. The new results, however, "show that even when we had populations orders of magnitude smaller than we do now, we still had a big impact."

In the new study, Doughty, Adam Wolf, and Chris Field--all at Carnegie Institution for Science--propose a scenario to explain how hunters could have triggered global warming.

First, mammoth populations began to drop-both because of natural climate change as the planet emerged from the last ice age, and because of human hunting. Normally, mammoths would have grazed down any birch that grew, so the area stayed a grassland. But if the mammoths vanished, the birch could spread. In the cold of the far north, these trees would be dwarfs, only about 2 meters (6 feet) tall. Nonetheless, they would dominate the grasses.

The trees would change the color of the landscape, making it much darker so it would absorb more of the Sun's heat, in turn heating up the air. This process would have added to natural climate change, making it harder for mammoths to cope, and helping the birch spread further.

To test how big of an effect this would have on climate, Field's team looked at ancient records of pollen, preserved in lake sediments from Alaska, Siberia, and the Yukon Territory, built up over thousands of years. They looked at pollen from birch trees (the genus Betula), since this is "a pioneer species that can rapidly colonize open ground following disturbance," the study says. The researchers found that around 15,000 years ago--the same time that mammoth populations dropped, and that hunters arrived in the area--the amount of birch pollen started to rise quickly.

To estimate how much additional area the birch might have covered, they started with the way modern-day elephants affect their environment by eating plants and uprooting trees. If mammoths had effects on vegetation similar to those of modern elephants, then the fall of mammoths would have allowed birch trees to spread over several centuries, expanding from very few trees to covering about one-quarter of Siberia and Beringia--the land bridge between Asia and Alaska. In those places where there was dense vegetation to start with and where mammoths had lived, the main reason for the spread of birch trees was the demise of mammoths, the model suggests.

Another study, published last year, shows that "the mammoths went extinct, and that was followed by a drastic change in the vegetation," rather than the other way around, Doughty says.
"With the extinction of this keystone species, it would have some impact on the ecology and vegetation--and vegetation has a large impact on climate."

Doughty and colleagues then used a climate simulation to estimate that this spread of birch trees would have warmed the whole planet more than 0.1 degrees Celsius (0.18 degrees Fahrenheit) over the course of several centuries. (In comparison, the planet has warmed about six times more during the past 150 years, largely because of people's greenhouse gas emissions.)

Only some portion--about one-quarter--of the spread of the birch trees would have been due to the mammoth extinctions, the researchers estimate. Natural climate change would have been responsible for the rest of the expansion of birch trees. Nonetheless, this suggests that when hunters helped finish off the mammoth, they could have caused some global warming.

In Siberia, Doughty says, "about 0.2 degrees C (0.36 degrees F) of regional warming is the part that is likely due to humans."

Earlier research indicated that prehistoric farmers changed the climate by slashing and burning forests starting about 8,000 years ago, and when they introduced rice paddy farming about 5,000 years ago. This would suggest that the start of the so-called "Anthropocene"--a term used by some scientists to refer to the geological age when mankind began shaping the entire planet-- should be dated to several thousand years ago.

However, Field and colleagues argue, the evidence of an even earlier man-made global climate impact suggests the Anthropocene could have started much earlier. Their results, they write, "suggest the human influence on climate began even earlier than previously believed, and that the onset of the Anthropocene should be extended back many thousands of years."

This work was funded by the Carnegie Institution for Science and NASA.

Maria-Jose Vinas | American Geophysical Union
Further information:
http://www.agu.org

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht A sudden drop in outdoor temperature increases the risk of respiratory infections
11.01.2017 | University of Gothenburg

nachricht Urbanization to convert 300,000 km2 of prime croplands
27.12.2016 | Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) gGmbH

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

Im Focus: How to inflate a hardened concrete shell with a weight of 80 t

At TU Wien, an alternative for resource intensive formwork for the construction of concrete domes was developed. It is now used in a test dome for the Austrian Federal Railways Infrastructure (ÖBB Infrastruktur).

Concrete shells are efficient structures, but not very resource efficient. The formwork for the construction of concrete domes alone requires a high amount of...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

Nothing will happen without batteries making it happen!

05.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

How gut bacteria can make us ill

18.01.2017 | Life Sciences

On track to heal leukaemia

18.01.2017 | Health and Medicine

Water - as the underlying driver of the Earth’s carbon cycle

17.01.2017 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>