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Ancient Climate Change & the Human Role

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMarch 25, 2011 8:53 PM


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I'm a student of environmental history. I've also long been interested in how humanity, society, and the environment have coevolved. Let's take the example of fire as one of the major agents of change. As William Cronon writes in his introduction to Steve Pyne's Fire: A brief history:

The process of fire's coevolution with humanity was the invention of agriculture and the very different fire dynamics it necessarily entails: fire to clear fields, fire to change the composition of wild and domesticated vegetation, fire alternately bound and released in cycles that sometimes seemed increasingly under human control, and sometimes devastatingly, not. The consequence of the fires that have burned under this second, agricultural regime have brought a complex remapping of the Earth's surface, extending fire's reach in some regions and habitats while suppressing it in others. The consequences of this human manipulation of terrestrial fire ecology have been so subtle and profound that we are only now beginning to understand them.

This leads me to an article in Nature on ancient climate change and the prehistoric human role:

Scientists have come up with new evidence in support of the controversial idea that humanity's influence on climate began not during the industrial revolution, but thousands of years ago. Proposed by palaeoclimatologist William Ruddiman in 2003, the theory says that human influences offset the imminent plunge into another ice age and helped create the relatively stable climate that we are familiar with today. It has been repeatedly panned as implausible by palaeoclimate researchers, but eight years on, Ruddiman and others say that they have the data to support early anthropogenic climate change.

As much as I've been intrigued by Ruddiman's hypothesis (laid out in this book), I've not given it much consideration, largely because it hasn't been taken seriously by his colleagues. But I've kept an open mind because of my familiarity with the field of environmental history. So I'm looking forward to this:

Ruddiman and several other researchers will present their supporting evidence in a series of papers scheduled for publication in a special issue of The Holocene journal later this year. Researchers presented some of the work this week at the American Geophysical Union's Chapman Conference on Climates, Past Landscapes and Civilizations in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "I'm of course hopelessly biased, but this year is going to be a good year for the early anthropogenic influence hypothesis," Ruddiman said as he presented his overview study.

If he's right, this will no doubt add an interesting wrinkle to the climate debate

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