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AGRICULTUR AL TERR ACES have been constructed

for some 2,000 years. Those on the opposite page are


in Guizhou Province, China.

HOW DID HUMANS


FIRST ALTER
GLOBAL
CLIMATE
A bold new hypothesis suggests that our ancestors’
farming practices kicked off global warming thousands
of years before we started burning coal and driving cars

By William F. Ruddiman
?
The scientific consensus
that human actions fi rst began to have a warming effect on New evidence suggests that concentrations of CO2 start-
the earth’s climate within the past century has become part ed rising about 8,000 years ago, even though natural trends
of the public perception as well. With the advent of coal- indicate they should have been dropping. Some 3,000 years
burning factories and power plants, industrial societies be- later the same thing happened to methane, another heat-trap-
GEORG GER S T ER Photo Researchers, Inc.

gan releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse ping gas. The consequences of these surprising rises have
gases into the air. Later, motor vehicles added to such emis- been profound. Without them, current temperatures in
sions. In this scenario, those of us who have lived during the northern parts of North America and Europe would be cool-
industrial era are responsible not only for the gas buildup in er by three to four degrees Celsius — enough to make agricul-
the atmosphere but also for at least part of the accompanying ture difficult. In addition, an incipient ice age — marked by
global warming trend. Now, though, it seems our ancient the appearance of small ice caps — would probably have be-
agrarian ancestors may have begun adding these gases to the gun several thousand years ago in parts of northeastern Can-
atmosphere many millennia ago, thereby altering the earth’s ada. Instead the earth’s climate has remained relatively warm
climate long before anyone thought. and stable in recent millennia.

46 SCIENTIFIC A MERIC A N MARCH 2005


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CREDIT

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Until a few years ago, these anoma- sun have exerted the dominant control cluding changes in the concentrations of
lous reversals in greenhouse gas trends over long-term global climate for mil- the greenhouse gases. A three-kilome-
and their resulting effects on climate had lions of years. As a consequence of these ter-long ice core retrieved from Vostok
escaped notice. But after studying the orbital cycles (which operate over Station in Antarctica during the 1990s
problem for some time, I realized that 100,000, 41,000 and 22,000 years), the contained trapped bubbles of ancient air
about 8,000 years ago the gas trends amount of solar radiation reaching vari- that revealed the composition of the at-
stopped following the pattern that would ous parts of the globe during a given sea- mosphere (and the gases) at the time the
be predicted from their past long-term son can differ by more than 10 percent. ice layers formed. The Vostok ice con-
behavior, which had been marked by Over the past three million years, these fi rmed that concentrations of CO2 and
regular cycles. I concluded that human regular changes in the amount of sunlight methane rose and fell in a regular pat-
activities tied to farming— primarily ag- reaching the planet’s surface have pro- tern during virtually all of the past
ricultural deforestation and crop irriga- duced a long sequence of ice ages (when 400,000 years.
tion — must have added the extra CO2 great areas of Northern Hemisphere con- Particularly noteworthy was that
and methane to the atmosphere. These tinents were covered with ice) separated these increases and decreases in green-
activities explained both the reversals in by short, warm interglacial periods. house gases occurred at the same inter-
gas trends and the ongoing increases Dozens of these climatic sequences vals as variations in the intensity of solar
right up to the start of the industrial era. occurred over the millions of years when radiation and the size of the ice sheets.
Since then, modern technological inno- hominids were slowly evolving toward For example, methane concentrations
vations have brought about even faster anatomically modern humans. At the fluctuate mainly at the 22,000-year tem-

My claim that human contributions have been


ALTERING THE EARTH’S CLIMATE FOR MILLENNIA
is provocative and controversial.
rises in greenhouse gas concentrations. end of the most recent glacial period, the po of an orbital cycle called precession.
My claim that human contributions ice sheets that had blanketed northern As the earth spins on its rotation axis, it
have been altering the earth’s climate for Europe and North America for the pre- wobbles like a top, slowly swinging the
millennia is provocative and controver- vious 100,000 years shrank and, by Northern Hemisphere closer to and then
sial. Other scientists have reacted to this 6,000 years ago, had disappeared. Soon farther from the sun. When this preces-
proposal with the mixture of enthusi- after, our ancestors built cities, invented sional wobble brings the northern conti-
asm and skepticism that is typical when writing and founded religions. Many nents nearest the sun during the sum-
novel ideas are put forward, and testing scientists credit much of the progress of mertime, the atmosphere gets a notable
of this hypothesis is now under way. civilization to this naturally warm gap boost of methane from its primary natu-
between less favorable glacial intervals, ral source — the decomposition of plant
The Current View but in my opinion this view is far from matter in wetlands.
t h is n e w i de a builds on decades of the full story. After wetland vegetation flourishes
advances in understanding long-term In recent years, cores of ice drilled in in late summer, it then dies, decays and
climate change. Scientists have known the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets emits carbon in the form of methane,
since the 1970s that three predictable have provided extremely valuable evi- sometimes called swamp gas. Periods of
variations in the earth’s orbit around the dence about the earth’s past climate, in- maximum summertime heating enhance
methane production in two primary
Overview/Early Global Warming ways: In southern Asia, the warmth
draws additional moisture-laden air in
■ A new hypothesis challenges the conventional assumption that greenhouse from the Indian Ocean, driving strong
gases released by human activities have perturbed the earth’s delicate tropical monsoons that flood regions
climate only within the past 200 years. that might otherwise stay dry. In far
■ New evidence suggests instead that our human ancestors began contributing northern Asia and Europe, hot summers
significant quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere thousands of thaw boreal wetlands for longer periods
years earlier by clearing forests and irrigating fields to grow crops. of the year. Both processes enable more
■ As a result, human beings kept the planet notably warmer than it would have vegetation to grow, decompose and emit
been otherwise — and possibly even averted the start of a new ice age. methane every 22,000 years. When the
Northern Hemisphere veers farther from

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Orbital Controls over Greenhouse Gases
Natural variations in the earth’s orbit, such as those related to (graphs). Although scientists do not fully understand why,
precession (diagrams), redistribute the sunlight that reaches global concentrations of these greenhouse gases respond
the globe over long timescales. For the past million years, mainly to changes that occur during summer in the Northern
these subtle changes have driven major dips and swells in Hemisphere, the time of year when the North Pole is pointed
atmospheric concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide most directly at the sun.

Precession MAXIMUM SOLAR RADIATION MINIMUM SOLAR RADIATION


IN NORTHERN HEMISPHERE IN NORTHERN HEMISPHERE
Northern
Equator winter

Sun
Wobble in the earth’s
axis of rotation, known
as precession, is one Northern Northern
Yearly orbit Northern
of the three orbital summer winter summer
cycles that account for
sunlight variations in the
Northern Hemisphere. 11,000 YEARS LATER
Like a toy top about
to fall, the earth’s axis Summer warmth in the Northern Hemisphere peaks Summer heat bottoms out 11,000 years later, after
traces imaginary circles once every 22,000 years, when the yearly northern the earth’s axis has shifted (precessed) to the opposite
in space, making one summer coincides with the earth’s closest passage position. The Northern Hemisphere then receives the
revolution every to the sun and the Northern Hemisphere receives least summer sunlight, because the earth is farthest
22,000 years. the most intense sunlight. from the sun.

800
(watts per square meter)

Methane in Vostok Ice Cores

Solar Radiation
280 -
(parts per million)

520 - Methane
Carbon Dioxide
(parts per billion)
Solar Radiation

- 600

240 -
480-
- 400

200 -
440-
I I I I I 200 I I I I
200 150 100 50 0 300 200 100 0
Thousands of Years Ago Thousands of Years Ago
Methane concentrations rose and fell over the past 250,000 years in CO2 concentrations, which fluctuated in cycles over the past
near harmony with the precession-induced ups and downs of solar 350,000 years, varied in response to precession as well as to
radiation in the Northern Hemisphere. The highest temperatures shifts in the tilt of the earth’s rotational axis and in the shape
stimulated extreme methane production in wetlands, which are the of its orbit. These other cycles occur every 41,000 and 100,000
atmosphere’s primary natural source of this greenhouse gas. years, respectively.

the sun, methane emissions start to de- same thing happened 11,000 years ago, ended up 250 ppb higher than the equiv-
cline. They bottom out 11,000 years just as the current interglacial period be- alent point in earlier cycles.
later— the point in the cycle when North- gan. Also in agreement with prior cycles, Like methane, CO2 has behaved un-
ern Hemisphere summers receive the the methane concentration then declined expectedly over the past several thou-
least solar radiation. by 100 ppb as summer sunshine subse- sand years. Although a complex combi-
quently waned. Had the recent trend nation of all three orbital cycles controls
Unexpected Reversals continued to mimic older interglacial in- CO2 variations, the trends during previ-
e x a m i n i n g r e c o r d s from the tervals, it would have fallen to a value ous interglacial intervals were all sur-
Vostok ice core closely, I spotted some- near 450 ppb during the current mini- prisingly similar to one another. Con-
LUC Y RE ADING-IKK ANDA

thing odd about the recent part of the mum in summer heating. Instead the centrations peaked at 275 to 300 parts
record. Early in previous interglacial in- trend reversed direction 5,000 years ago per million (ppm) early in each warm pe-
tervals, the methane concentration typi- and rose gradually back to almost 700 riod, even before the last remnants of the
cally reached a peak of almost 700 parts ppb just before the start of the industrial great ice sheets fi nished melting. The
per billion (ppb) as precession brought era. In short, the methane concentration CO 2 levels then fell steadily over the
summer radiation to a maximum. The rose when it should have fallen, and it next 15,000 years to an average of about

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245 ppm. During the current interglacial level to its high interglacial position, and son that natural wetlands do — vegeta-
interval, CO2 concentrations reached solar radiation driven by the earth’s or- tion decomposes in the stagnant stand-
the expected peak around 10,500 years bit had increased and then begun to de- ing water. Methane is also released as
ago and, just as anticipated, began a sim- crease in the same way. farmers burn grasslands to attract game
ilar decline. But instead of continuing to Why, then, would the gas concentra- and promote growth of berries. In addi-
drop steadily through modern times, the tions have fallen during the last four in- tion, people and their domesticated ani-
trend reversed direction 8,000 years terglaciations yet risen only during the mals emit methane with feces and belch-
ago. By the start of the industrial era, the current one? I concluded that something es. All these factors probably contribut-
concentration had risen to 285 ppm — new to the natural workings of the cli- ed to a gradual rise in methane as human
roughly 40 ppm higher than expected mate system must have been operating populations grew slowly, but only one
from the earlier behavior. during the past several thousand years. process seems likely to have accounted
What could explain these unexpect- for the abruptness of the reversal from a
ed reversals in the natural trends of both The Human Connection natural methane decline to an unexpect-
methane and CO2? Other investigators t h e mos t pl ausi bl e “new factor” ed rise around 5,000 years ago — the on-
suggested that natural factors in the cli- operating in the climate system during set of rice irrigation in southern Asia.
mate system provided the answer. The the present interglaciation is farming. Farmers began flooding lowlands
methane increase has been ascribed to The basic timeline of agricultural inno- near rivers to grow wet-adapted strains
expansion of wetlands in Arctic regions vations is well known. Agriculture orig- of rice around 5,000 years ago in the
and the CO2 rise to natural losses of car- inated in the Fertile Crescent region of south of China. With extensive flood-
bon-rich vegetation on the continents, as the eastern Mediterranean around plains lying within easy reach of several
well as to changes in the chemistry of the 11,000 years ago, shortly thereafter in large rivers, it makes sense that broad
ocean. Yet it struck me that these expla- northern China, and several thousand swaths of land could have been flooded
nations were doomed to fail for a simple years later in the Americas. Through soon after the technique was discovered,
reason. During the four preceding inter- subsequent millennia it spread to other thus explaining the quick shift in the
glaciations, the major factors thought to regions and increased in sophistication. methane trend. Historical records also
influence greenhouse gas concentrations By 2,000 years ago, every crop food eat- indicate a steady expansion in rice irri-
in the atmosphere were nearly the same en today was being cultivated some- gation throughout the interval when
as in recent millennia. The northern ice where in the world. methane values were rising. By 3,000
sheets had melted, northern forests had Several farming activities generate years ago the technique had spread south
reoccupied the land uncovered by ice, methane. Rice paddies flooded by irriga- into Indochina and west to the Ganges
meltwater from the ice had returned sea tion generate methane for the same rea- River Valley in India, further increasing

Human Activities and Greenhouse Gases


Our human ancestors invented 11,000 years ago: Early 8,000 years ago:
agriculture about 11,000 years peoples invent agriculture Late Stone Age Europeans
ago — around the same time that in Mesopotamia and China begin clearing forests to
grow wheat, barley, peas
atmospheric concentrations of and other nonindigenous
methane and CO2 peaked in the Carbonized wheat crop plants
wake of the last ice age. Had the Paleolithic sickle blade
gas trends subsequently 10,000 YEARS AGO 8,000 YEARS AGO
mimicked older interglacial
intervals, as expected, they would
Carbon Dioxide (parts per million)

7,500 years ago:


have fallen right up through the Observed Humans adapt wild
start of the industrial era. Instead 280 trend rice for cultivation
the declining trends of both gases
reversed direction several 8,000 years ago: CO2
trend, which has been
thousand years ago and have falling for 2,500 years,
risen steadily ever since. 260 bottoms out and suddenly
The timing of key agricultural reverses direction
Natural trend
innovations — namely,
deforestation and rice
irrigation — may explain these 8,000
240
surprising reversals. — W.F.R. 10,000 5000 0
Years Ago
P E T R IE M U S E U M OF E G Y P T I A N A R C H A E OL O G Y, U NI V E R S I T Y C OL L E GE L O ND O N (s i c k l e b l a d e and car bonized w h ea t) ; J O N AT H A N B L A IR Co r bi s (r i ce)

50 SCIENTIFIC A MERIC A N MARCH 2005


COPYRIGHT 2005 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.
unique historical document— the Dooms-
THE AUTHOR
WILLIAM F. RUDDIMAN is a marine geologist and professor emeritus of environmental
sciences at the University of Virginia. He joined the faculty there in 1991 and served as day Book. This survey of England, or-
department chair from 1993 to 1996. Ruddiman first began studying records of climate dered by William the Conqueror, report-
change in ocean sediments as a graduate student at Columbia University, where he re- ed that 90 percent of the natural forest in
ceived his doctorate in 1969. He then worked as a senior scientist and oceanographer lowland, agricultural regions was cleared
with the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office in Maryland and later as a senior research sci- as of A.D. 1086. The survey also counted
entist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. 1.5 million people living in England at
the time, indicating that an average den-
methane emissions. After 2,000 years, China by 8,000 years ago, initially with sity of 10 people per square kilometer
farmers began to construct rice paddies axes made of stone and later from bronze was sufficient to eliminate the forests.
on the steep hillsides of Southeast Asia. and then iron. Whether the fallen trees Because the advanced civilizations of the
Future research may provide quanti- were burned or left to rot, their carbon major river valleys of China and India
tative estimates of the amount of land would have soon oxidized and ended up had reached much higher population
irrigated and methane generated through in the atmosphere as CO2 . densities several thousand years prior,
this 5,000-year interval. Such estimates Scientists have precisely dated evi- many historical ecologists have conclud-
will be probably be difficult to come by, dence that Europeans began growing ed that these regions were heavily defor-
however, because repeated irrigation of nonindigenous crop plants such as ested some two or even three thousand
the same areas into modern times has wheat, barley and peas in naturally for- years ago. In summary, Europe and
probably disturbed much of the earlier ested areas just as the CO2 trend reversed southern Asia had been heavily defor-
evidence. For now, my case rests mainly 8,000 years ago. Remains of these ested long before the start of the indus-
on the basic fact that the methane trend plants, initially cultivated in the Near trial era, and the clearance process was
went the “wrong way” and that farmers East, fi rst appear in lake sediments in well under way throughout the time of
began to irrigate wetlands at just the right southeastern Europe and then spread to the unusual CO2 rise.
time to explain this wrong-way trend. the west and north over the next several
Another common practice tied to thousand years. During this interval, silt An Ice Age Prevented?
farming — deforestation — provides a and clay began to wash into rivers and i f fa r m e r s w e r e responsible for
plausible explanation for the start of the lakes from denuded hillsides at increas- greenhouse gas anomalies this large —
anomalous CO2 trend. Growing crops ing rates, further attesting to ongoing 250 ppb for methane and 40 ppm for
in naturally forested areas requires cut- forest clearance. CO2 by the 1700s — the effect of their
ting trees, and farmers began to clear The most unequivocal evidence of practices on the earth’s climate would
forests for this purpose in Europe and early and extensive deforestation lies in a have been substantial. Based on the aver-

200 years ago: Combustion of fossil


fuels and accelerating deforestation
result in unprecedented releases of
greenhouse gases

5,000 years ago:


Farmers in the south
of China begin fl ooding 2,000 years ago: Europe, India, Southeast Asia
lowlands near rivers and China have cleared much of their natural
to grow rice forest cover to grow crops such as wheat
Otto engine
6,000 YEARS AGO 4,000 YEARS AGO 2,000 YEARS AGO PRESENT
Methane (parts per billion)

Observed
700 trend

2,000 years ago:


5,000 years ago: Farmers in Southeast
Methane trend, which 600 Asia begin to construct
has been falling for terraced rice paddies
6,000 years, suddenly on steep hillsides
reverses direction Natural
500 trend

10,000 5,000 0
Years Ago
J U L I A WAT E R L O W Eye U bi q u i to u s /Co r bi s (i r r i ga ti o n) ; T HE IM A GE B A NK (d e f o r es ta ti o n) ; V INC E S T R E A NO Co r bi s (w h ea t f i el d) ; D AV ID GR E E D Y Get ty Images (r i ce ter r a ces) ;
S C IE NC E L IB R A R Y/ S S P L (combus ti on engine) ; L U C Y R E A DING - IK K A ND A ( g r a p h s)

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age sensitivity shown by a range of cli-
Human Disease and Global Cooling mate models, the combined effect from
Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have been climbing since about 8,000 these anomalies would have been an av-
years ago. During the past two millennia, however, that steady increase at times erage warming of almost 0.8 degree C
reversed direction, and the CO2 levels fell for decades or more. Scientists usually just before the industrial era. That
attribute such CO2 drops — and the accompanying dips in global temperature —to amount is larger than the 0.6 degree C
natural reductions in the sun’s energy output or to volcanic eruptions. These warming measured during the past cen-
factors have been regarded as major drivers of climate change over decades or tury— implying that the effect of early
centuries, but for the CO2 patterns, such explanations fall short— which implies farming on climate rivals or even exceeds
that an additional factor forced CO2 levels downward. Because I had already the combined changes registered during
concluded that our human ancestors had caused the slow rise in CO2 for thousands the time of rapid industrialization.
of years by clearing forests for agriculture (see main article), this new finding How did this dramatic warming ef-
made me wonder whether some kind of reversal of the ongoing clearance could fect escape recognition for so long? The
explain the brief CO2 drops. main reason is that it was masked by
The most likely root cause turns out to be disease — the massive human natural climatic changes in the opposite
mortality accompanying pandemics. Two severe outbreaks of bubonic plague, direction. The earth’s orbital cycles were
the single most devastating killer in human history, correlate well with large CO2 driving a simultaneous natural cooling
drops at approximately A.D. 540 and 1350 (graph). Plague first erupted during the trend, especially at high northern lati-
Roman era, with the most virulent pandemic, the Plague of Justinian, in A.D. 540 tudes. The net temperature change was
to 542. The infamous “Black Death” struck between 1347 and 1352, followed by a gradual summer cooling trend lasting
lesser outbreaks for more than a century. Each of these pandemics killed some
until the 1800s.
25 to 40 percent of the population of Europe. An even worse catastrophe followed
Had greenhouse gases been allowed
in the Americas after 1492, when Europeans introduced smallpox and a host of
to follow their natural tendency to de-
other diseases that killed around 50 million people, or about 90 percent of the pre-
cline, the resulting cooling would have
Columbian population. The American pandemic coincides with the largest CO2 drop
of all, from 1550 to 1800. augmented the one being driven by the
Observers at the time noted that the massive mortality rates produced by drop in summer radiation, and this plan-
these pandemics caused widespread abandonment of rural villages and farms, et would have become considerably
leaving untended farmland to revert to the wild. Ecologists have shown that cooler than it is now. To explore this
forests will reoccupy abandoned land in just 50 years. Coupled with estimates possibility, I joined with Stephen J.
of human population and the acreage cultivated by each farmer, calculations Vavrus and John E. Kutzbach of the Uni-
of forest regrowth in pandemic-stricken regions indicate that renewed forests versity of Wisconsin–Madison to use a
could have sequestered enough carbon to reduce concentrations of CO2 in the climate model to predict modern-day
atmosphere by the amounts observed. Global climate would have cooled as a temperature in the absence of all hu-
result, until each pandemic passed and rebounding populations began cutting man-generated greenhouse gases. The
and burning forests anew. — W.F.R. model simulates the average state of the
earth’s climate — including temperature
290 and precipitation— in response to differ-
Smallpox and other European
diseases kill 90 percent of native ent initial conditions.
Carbon Dioxide (parts per million)

population in the Americas For our experiment, we reduced the


Middle Ages “Black Death” greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere
kills 25 to 40 percent
285 of Europeans Long-term to the values they would have reached
deforestation today without early farming or indus-
trend
trial emissions. The resulting simulation
Ice core 1
showed that our planet would be almost
280 two degrees C cooler than it is now— a
Ice core 2 significant difference. In comparison,
Roman-era plague episodes the global mean temperature at the last
culminate in deaths of 25 glacial maximum 20,000 years ago was
275 to 40 percent of Europeans
only five to six degrees C colder than
LUC Y RE ADING-IKK ANDA

500 B.C. 0 500 1000 1500 2000 it is today. In effect, current tempera-
Year tures would be well on the way toward
typical glacial temperatures had it not
MOST DR AMATIC DROPS in atmospheric CO2 concentrations during the past 2,000 years
(as recorded in two Antarctic ice cores) occurred around the same periods that disease
been for the greenhouse gas contribu-
outbreaks were taking the greatest toll on human life (yellow bars). tions from early farming practices and
later industrialization.

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I had also initially proposed that new Temperatures After fossil fuels
above natural Today
ice sheets might have begun to form in range of
are depleted
Actual
the far north if this natural cooling had ice ages trend
been allowed to proceed. Other re- Warmest
b
Glaciation
searchers had shown previously that temperatures threshold Greenhouse effect
parts of far northeastern Canada might of interglacial from human activities
intervals Natural start of next a
be ice covered today if the world were Early agriculture
glaciation in a world
Rapid industrialization
cooler by just 1.5 to two degrees C — the absent of human activity
Future activities
same amount of cooling that our exper-
iment suggested has been offset by the Coldest Natural
temperatures temperature
greenhouse gas anomalies. The later during ice trend
modeling effort with my Wisconsin col- age peaks I I I I I
leagues showed that snow would now 20,000 10,000 0
Years Ago Years Ago Present
persist into late summer in two areas of
GREENHOUSE EFFECT from human activities has warded off a glaciation that otherwise would
northeastern Canada: Baffin Island, just
have begun about 5,000 years ago. Early human agricultural activities produced enough
east of the mainland, and Labrador, far- greenhouse gases to offset most of the natural cooling trend during preindustrial times (yellow),
ther south. Because any snow that sur- warming the planet by an average of almost 0.8 degree Celsius. That early warming effect (a)
vives throughout the summer will accu- rivals the 0.6 degree Celsius (b) warming measured in the past century of rapid industrialization
mulate in thicker piles year by year and (orange). Once most fossil fuels are depleted and the temperature rise caused by greenhouse
eventually become glacial ice, these re- gases peaks, the earth will cool toward the next glaciation — now thousands of years overdue.
sults suggest that a new ice age would in part because of the gas increases. This work as evidence that human-generated
have begun in northeast Canada several evidence convinced most scientists that greenhouse gases played a beneficial role
millennia ago, at least on a small scale. the relatively near-term future (the next for several thousand years by keeping
This conclusion is startlingly differ- century or two) would be dominated by the earth’s climate more hospitable than
ent from the traditional view that hu- global warming rather than by global it would otherwise have been. Others
man civilization blossomed within a pe- cooling. This revised prediction, based might counter that if so few humans
riod of warmth that nature provided. As on an improved understanding of the cli- with relatively primitive technologies
I see it, nature would have cooled the mate system, led some policymakers to were able to alter the course of climate
earth’s climate, but our ancestors kept it discount all forecasts— whether of glob- so significantly, then we have reason to
warm by discovering agriculture. al warming or an impending ice age — as be concerned about the current rise of
untrustworthy. greenhouse gases to unparalleled con-
Implications for the Future My fi ndings add a new wrinkle to centrations at unprecedented rates.
t h e c o n c l u s i o n t h a t humans each scenario. If anything, such fore- The rapid warming of the past cen-
prevented a cooling and arguably casts of an “impending” ice age were ac- tury is probably destined to persist for at
stopped the initial stage of a glacial cycle tually understated: new ice sheets should least 200 years, until the economically
bears directly on a long-running dispute have begun to grow several millennia accessible fossil fuels become scarce.
over what global climate has in store for ago. The ice failed to grow because hu- Once that happens, the earth’s climate
us in the near future. Part of the reason man-induced global warming actually should begin to cool gradually as the
that policymakers had trouble embrac- began far earlier than previously deep ocean slowly absorbs the pulse of
ing the initial predictions of global thought— well before the industrial era. excess CO 2 from human activities.
warming in the 1980s was that a num- In these kinds of hotly contested top- Whether global climate will cool enough
ber of scientists had spent the previous ics that touch on public policy, scientific to produce the long-overdue glaciation
decade telling everyone almost exactly results are often used for opposing ends. or remain warm enough to avoid that
the opposite — that an ice age was on its Global-warming skeptics could cite my fate is impossible to predict.
way. Based on the new confirmation that
orbital variations control the growth MORE TO EXPLORE
and decay of ice sheets, some scientists Plagues and Peoples. William McNeill. Doubleday, 1976.
studying these longer-scale changes had Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery. John Imbrie and Katherine Palmer Imbrie. Enslow, 1979.
reasonably concluded that the next ice Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Jared Diamond. W. W. Norton, 1999.
LUC Y RE ADING-IKK ANDA

age might be only a few hundred or at Earth’s Climate: Past and Future. William F. Ruddiman. W. H. Freeman, 2001.
most a few thousand years away. The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago. William F. Ruddiman in
Climatic Change, Vol. 61, No. 3, pages 261–293; 2003.
In subsequent years, however, inves-
Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Michael A. Williams. University of
tigators found that greenhouse gas con- Chicago Press, 2003.
centrations were rising rapidly and that Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. William F. Ruddiman.
the earth’s climate was warming, at least Princeton University Press (in press).

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