If our planet had been in existence for a year, rather than for around 4.5 billion years, then 2.4 million years would represent a little under 4 hours 45 minutes. Or, to put it in human terms, if our planet had existed for 70 years (a relatively short human lifespan across much of the developed world), then 2.4 million years would be represented by a little over four minutes. When you’re aged 70, something that happened around 4 minutes ago is very recent indeed.

Today the BBC drew my attention to a fascinating new study published in Nature with the title “A 2-million-year-old ecosystem in Greenland uncovered by environmental DNA”. (The BBC headlines with “Oldest DNA reveals two-million-year-old lost world”). The BBC article commences with:

The most ancient DNA ever sequenced reveals what the Arctic looked like two million years ago when it was warmer.

It certainly looked very different. And as for “warmer”, well – it was quite a bit warmer. 11 – 19C hotter, in fact. Compare and contrast with the apocalyptic claims about 1.5C, 2C, even 4C of warming from pre-industrial levels, and the regular claims that the mild and gentle warming we are now experiencing is “unprecedented”.

The Nature report of the study is well worth a read. The science is fascinating, though the seemingly inevitable obeisance to climate catastrophism seems overdone in the opening sentence:

Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene epochs 3.6 to 0.8 million years ago had climates resembling those forecasted under future warming.

Really? Even under the outlier that is RCP8.5 I don’t recall anyone asserting that we will witness “mean annual temperatures of 11–19 °C above contemporary values”, which is what is claimed for the period under study. The claim that this is what is forecast is footnoted, and the footnote links to IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013). I’m sure I’d have remembered if someone had claimed that AR5 warned us that temperatures were going to increase by 11 – 19C in the next century or so. It’s therefore disappointing to see this study commencing in this way. Still, leaving that tendentious claim to one side, the study is fascinating both for it’s amazing and innovative use of ancient environmental DNA (eDNA) (“Our findings open new areas of genetic research, demonstrating that it is possible to track the ecology and evolution of biological communities from two million years ago using ancient eDNA”); and for what it tells us about the climate of far northern Greenland, and the flora and fauna that thrived there 2.4 million years ago:

Here we report an ancient environmental DNA (eDNA) record describing the rich plant and animal assemblages of the Kap København Formation in North Greenland, dated to around two million years ago. The record shows an open boreal forest ecosystem with mixed vegetation of poplar, birch and thuja trees, as well as a variety of Arctic and boreal shrubs and herbs, many of which had not previously been detected at the site from macrofossil and pollen records. The DNA record confirms the presence of hare and mitochondrial DNA from animals including mastodons, reindeer, rodents and geese, all ancestral to their present-day and late Pleistocene relatives. The presence of marine species including horseshoe crab and green algae support a warmer climate than today. The reconstructed ecosystem has no modern analogue.

The history of life on our planet has been one of untold numbers of new plants and animals, and huge numbers of extinctions. Life on the planet today probably represents only the tiniest fraction of the lifeforms that have existed in the past. Change is inevitable. Angst about warmer temperatures diminishing areas where some species can live and (in the northern hemisphere) driving them further north should be balanced by the historical backwards and forwards movements of climate, of warm and cool periods, and of the ability of lifeforms to exist in different places or at all. In that context, this statement interested me:

Out of the 102 genera detected in the Kap København ancient eDNA assemblage, 39% no longer grow in Greenland but do occur in the North American boreal (for example, Picea and Populus) and northern deciduous and maritime forests (for example, Crataegus, Taxus, Thuja and Filipendula). Many of the plant genera in this diverse assemblage do not occur on permafrost substrates and require higher temperatures than those at any latitude on Greenland today.

Had humans been around at the time, and had they been subject to the same quasi-religious guilt complex that seems to motivate so many climate worriers, presumably we would have been bemoaning the cooling planet and the fact that the changing climate was denying plantlife its “natural” habitat close to the North Pole. As for animal life, forget polar bears being pin-ups for climate grief. No, it would be the mastodon (a predominantly forest-dwelling animal) that was grabbing all the attention, as its Arctic forest habitat disappeared in the teeth of increasing cold.

I commenced by making what some might think a strange analogy with the timescale of a human life. I did so deliberately. I am convinced that modern humans complaining of “climate change” destroying the planet do so because they think in human timescales. The reality is that the planet is bigger than any of us, climate has always changed and always will, and if this time round we humans are managing to change it for the first time in our planet’s history, that change is still minor compared to what has occurred in the past.

8 Comments

  1. Mark, you are exactly right on the question of timescales. That is why we have tv news crews interviewing flood victims, who inevitably come out with something like “I’ve been here X years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.” Occasionally X is a ludicrously short time (I think someone in my Svalbard rant referred to 2 years).

    It is naturally the responsibility of the media to put stories into the correct context, which means placing them in perspective, which invariably means tipping a bucket of sand on a smouldering story. Hence they prefer not to do it, which is to our great detriment in terms of having an informed society.

    Meanwhile, according to Polar Portal’s (DMI’s) model, Greenland’s snow seems to be performing quite well this winter:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Is there a typo in the first sentence, or am I just reading it wrongly?
    1 year is to 4.5 billion years as 4 hours 45 mins is to 2.4 million years.
    70 years is to 4.5 billion years as 4 minutes is to 2.4 million years.
    The first is right, the second surely not.

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  3. John P,

    Rather than you reading it wrongly, I probably expressed it badly. I meant to imply that for someone who lives for 70 years, a given timespan is (pro rata) 1/70 as long as someone who lives for one year. I was trying to express in human terms that the climate of 2.4 million years ago, in the context of the life of the planet, is little more than the blink of an eye. Re-reading it, my attempt to do so was a bit clumsy, but I hope the general point is clear.

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  4. The Guardian now has the story too:

    “DNA from 2m years ago reveals lost Arctic world
    Breakthrough pushes back DNA record by 1m years to time when region was 11–19C warmer than today”

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/dec/07/dna-from-2m-years-ago-reveals-lost-arctic-world

    Should I be surprised that they use exactly the same picture to illustrate it as was used by the BBC to illustrate its article? They really are in lockstep about most things.

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  5. A serious point underlies this article, a question we sceptics sometimes ask, but which alarmists never answer (certainly not to my satisfaction). That is, given that over the course of its existence, our planet has experienced climate as varied as snowball earth, tropical weather at the poles, and everything in-between (many, many times) why have they settled on the climate around the late 18th/early 19th century as the “natural” and perfect climate that must be preserved at all costs, especially given our knowledge that it is bound to change naturally in any event (as it always has done)?

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  6. Mark, perhaps a partial answer to your question is that the late 18th/early 19th century was a period when CO2 was at a lower concentration in the atmosphere. And since combustion produces CO2 then driving for lower CO2 requires less combustion which in turn means less industrial activity in those countries that (foolishly) accept the policy. In short, LEVELLING DOWN occurs in those countries that kowtow to the CO2 climate doctrine; while sovereign countries decide their own industrial strategy and LEVEL UP.

    Is the above not the implication of the IPCC’s policy as expounded by their German economist Ottmar Edenhofer when he said, “”But one must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy…One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy any more.” ~ Ottmar Edenhofer” ?
    https://www.azquotes.com/author/30831-Ottmar_Edenhofer

    So a short answer to your very important question may simply be that climate catastrophism is simply a tool for wealth distribution. We should, however, note in relation to certain countries in the West that the wealth redistribution is happening within countries, i.e. where the wealthy are growing wealthier and the poor becoming poorer.

    Should we send our congratulations to Herr Edenhofer and the IPCC in general? Or should we lament our politicians’ gullibility?

    Regards,
    John.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The article is too short really to agree or disagree with the conclusion, but it reads like a typical Guardian knee-jerk climate scare story rather than one based on reason:

    “What archaeologists discovered about climate change in prehistoric England
    DNA analysis shows gradual changes to landscape and vegetation are not what future generations can expect”

    https://www.theguardian.com/news/2022/dec/09/weatherwatch-archaeologists-prehistoric-changes-climate-england

    A key element of human existence and the prospects for people surviving or thriving was the weather and general climate.

    Archaeologists have always been able to tell us something about this when digging up Roman or bronze age settlements by using animal bones and burnt seeds as clues. It shows what farmers grew or hunters could catch. But further back in time this becomes more difficult.

    Teams working in the vicinity of Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, on a landscape with the marks of human occupation going back almost 10,000 years, have improved on this. Using DNA from undisturbed layers of sediment, they have been able to find out what plants and trees grew nearby.

    Animal bones and other evidence added to the picture of landscape, climate and vegetation along the ancient River Avon. Among the finds were the hoof prints of aurochsen, the giant prehistoric cattle, one of which could feed 200 people at a feast.

    The presence of willow at the earliest dates, which was followed thousands of years later by apple, rose, dogwood and ivy, suggests light woodland. Later plants, including thistles, bindweeds and nettles, provided evidence the area was gradually drying out, giving way to the current grassland. Compared with the sudden climate changes our children can expect, our ancestors had ample time to adapt.

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  8. “our ancestors had ample time to adapt” – Doggerland springs to mind.

    do they think something like that will happen in our generation?

    ps – reading “the rise of the Celts” by Henri Hubert (1934) which gives a good insight into why people/tribes moved around Europe & how Climate change was a partial driver for this in the past 5000 yrs at least.

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