To better understand our future climate, scientists are digging into Earth’s ancient past.

Almost 56 million years ago, as giant land masses were splitting apart, huge volumes of greenhouse gases were released into Earth’s atmosphere – triggering a global warming of more than nine degrees Fahrenheit.

Wildebeest migrating and crossing  river

Gabe Bowen of the University of Utah studied the geologic record to better understand how life on earth might respond to today’s climate change. What he found was surprising.

Bowen: “One of the interesting things is that we don’t really see massive waves of extinction.”

But Bowen did find evidence of massive migrations.

Bowen: “We see that groups as diverse as land turtles, mammals, and plants moved across the landscape, sometimes thousands of kilometers, presumably to kind of keep pace with changing environmental conditions.”

Most were able to keep up as their needed climate zones shifted, but Bowen’s research suggests that today’s global warming is happening up to ten times faster, and he says the world is very different now.

Bowen: “Habitats are much more fragmented today because we’ve built roadways and cities, and we’ve had a lot of other effects on environmental quality and habitat quality.”

These factors may make it harder, if not impossible, for many plants and animals to adapt.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo: Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) crossing the Mara river during the Great Migration in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Copyright protected.

More Resources
Past global warming similar to today’s: Size, duration were like modern climate shift, but in two pulses
Ancient Earth Warmed Dramatically After a One-Two Carbon Punch
Patterns in Palaeontology: The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum
Palaeoclimate: Carbon feedbacks on repeat?
Two massive, rapid releases of carbon during the onset of the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections since 2012, David Appell, Ph.D., is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon, specializing in the physical sciences, technology, and the environment. His...