Sea-surface temperatures during the last interglaciation.



The relentless rise of carbon dioxide (Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

A proverb of Confucius states “Study the past if you would divine the future.” Human activity ensures that our climate will become warmer in the next century and remain warm for many millennia to come which makes particularly pertinent the study of periods in which at least sectors of the Earth system may have been “warmer” than today. The last interglaciation (LIG, 129 to 116 thousand years ago) was one of the warmest periods in the last 800,000 years with an associated sea-level rise of 6 to 9 m above present levels . A new study by Jeremy S. Hoffman and colleagues, compiled 104 published LIG sea surface temperature (SST) records from 83 marine sediment core sites. Each core site was compared to data sets from 1870-1889 and 1995-2014, respectively. The analysis revealed that 129,000 years ago, the global ocean surface temperature was similar to the 1870-1889 average. But 125,000 years ago, the global SST increased by 0.5° ± 0.3°Celcius, reaching a temperature indistinguishable from the 1995-2014 average. The result is worrisome, because it shows that changes in temperatures which occurred over thousands of years, are now occurring in the space of a single century. The study also suggests that in the long term, sea level will rise at least six meters in response to the global warming.

Data from the study by Jeremy Hoffman et al. representing sample sites, sea surface temperatures, and historic carbon dioxide level

Data from the study by Jeremy Hoffman et al. representing sample sites, sea surface temperatures, and historic carbon dioxide level

The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century. After the World War II, the atmospheric CO2 concentration grew, from 311 ppm in 1950 to 369 ppm in 2000. Glaciers  from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets are fading away, dumping 260 billion metric tons of water into the ocean every year. The ocean acidification is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years, and  the patterns of rainfall and drought are changing and undermining food security which have major implications for human health, welfare and social infrastructure. In his master book L’Evolution Créatrice (1907), French philosopher Henri Bergson, wrote:  “A century has elapsed since the invention of the steam engine, and we are only just beginning to feel the depths of the shock it gave us.”


J.S. Hoffman et al. Regional and global sea-surface temperatures during the last interglaciation. Science. Vol. 355, January 20, 2017, p. 276. doi: 10.1126/science.aai8464.

Past Interglacials Working Group of PAGES (2016), Interglacials of the last 800,000 years, Rev. Geophys., 54, 162–219, doi: 10.1002/2015RG000482. 

Bakker, P., et al. (2014), Temperature trends during the present and Last Interglacial periods—A multi-model-data comparison, Quat. Sci. Rev., 99, 224–243, doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2014.06.031.

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  1. Pingback: Fossil Friday Roundup: January 27, 2017 | PLOS Blogs Network

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