Paleontoloists & Global Warming

Paleontologists, and anyone with an expert knowledge of the history of the earth and its inhabitants, know that the planet has undergone massive climatological change throughout its history. In addition to the relatively recent series of ice ages, there was a time when when the south pole had temperate forests.

My point is that there seems to be a large collection of scientists who understand that the earth has naturally undergone significant swings in climate. So, do these scientists regard the present day global warming with the same frenzy as, say, the media? Or do they simply shrug and say, “Well, you’re living on a dynamic planet. Things change.” Even if they concede that the current global warming is being caused by people (that is, the warming would not be happening if people didn’t exist), are there any such scientists who say that humans are a natural product of the earth and that, by extension, the global warming they produce is also a natural product of the earth?

I have no doubt that most regard the concept of global warming as a threat to the status quo of human existance. But given their knowledge of what the planet has endured over the last few billion years, do they see global warming as a threat to the planet itself, or merely as a threat to humankind’s comfortable living environment?

  • Ol Peculiar

Scientists being a diverse group themselves, believe a whole range of things including everything you listed. The main point is that the current consensus is that most reputable scientists believe that the earth is heating up rapidly because of human activity. That doesn’t mean that it is right and there are plenty of scientists willing to play the devils advocate. That is the way science works.

We have had many threads about this is you are interested.

I don’t want this to sidetrack the discussion later, so " there was a time when when the south pole had temperate forests." is something best attributed to plate tectonics, not global warming. The forests (floral and faunal fossil evidence) suggest that particular plate existed at that time in a different, more temperate place on earth.

This point should in no way though detract from the premise of your question.

In my personal experience as a scientist working in ecology and conservation, my colleagues - ecologists and biologists - are extremely concerned about global warming, probably more so than the general public or the media. However, they are not so worried about disaster scenarios such as Florida being underwater and so on. What they are concerned about is pervasive climatic change and its cumulative effect on species and ecosystems.

They don’t regard it as a threat to “the planet,” whatever that may mean. The Earth has gone through many episodes of climate change and mass extinctions. Life will change but will survive.

They regard global warming as a threat to human comfort and happiness, as well as to present ecosystems. It is certainly not a threat to the existence of humans as a species. But global warming is likely to cause wrenching economic effects, as well as the extinction of many species which are not able to adapt quickly enough to changing conditions.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are a natural part of the planet as well. That does not mean that we don’t try to avoid their negative effects.

I immediately thought of a piece by George Carlin from one of his CDs when I read your question. And what do you know, I found the text of it:

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If the oceans rise even twenty feet it will be a major disaster for human cities.

But a rise of that magnitude is nothing whatsoever in earth terms.

Global warming is a human problem that will severely affect humans. It may be just the slightest bump over hundreds of millions of years, but we’re living today and looking at what will happen in our lifetimes - not over the next 100 million years.

So paleontologists should certainly care as humans, regardless of what it means in geologic time. They care as much and in the same way as cosmologists, who also look at events covering billions of years.

The earth is not fragile; humans are fragile.

The issue isn’t just that the global average temperature changes (as you point out it has been cycling for a long long time), the issue is the rapid rate of change within the last 100 years. Far faster than the changes in the past (as far as they can tell based on the various evidence they are using).

Colibri - I agree with everything you say. My point was that the earth and its climate is an ever-changing paradigm. Your work in ecology and conservationism logically puts you and your colleagues at the “global warming = BAD” end of the spectrum. Which is right where most people would expect to find intelligent and well-informed scientists. I was just wondering if there were other professionals in other scientific fields who might take the (somewhat more controversial and certainly less popular) view that “global warming = NATURAL (unfortunate and inconvenient, but natural)”.

  • Ol Peculiar.

The new Earth-Plus Plastic! Available wherever styrofoam is sold…

I’m not a paleoentologist, just a run of the mill geologist who works for an oil company.

What’s going on now wrt climate change is unprecedented. The Earth has constantly been burying and releasing CO[sub]2[/sub] for around 600 million years in the form of fossil fuels. Along comes man and we’re going to release a very large portion of that in less than 600 years. It’s going to have severe short term consequences*. The Earth will come through just fime in the medium to long term, though.
*Remember, I’m a geoloist. Short term is in the range of maybe 10,000 years

Untrue; the poles have had a warm or temperate climate for most of the last 500 million years; it was only about 20 million years ago that they really started to cool down. During the Eocene, the poles were quite definitely heavily forested.

Well, it’s both. There are natural climate changes and their are (now) anthropogenic climate changes*. Either one can be “good” or “bad” depending on where you live. But if you look at the effect on humans the U]ecosystem as a whole, the faster the change the more difficult it is for any species to adapt. That’s not necessarily “bad”-- hell, it’s likely that we humans would never have evolved as we did if there weren’t some violent climate swings over the last 5M years.

But no matter how wonderful things turn out for a few locations, it can’t be “good” that 100s of millions of peopel will be displaced and countless ecosystems altered, including the extinction of untold number of species. Of course, some species will thrive and others will evolove from some of the existing species. It might be great for insects, for example. If it ends up wiping us out as a species (not likely, but let’s just pretend), is that “good” or “bad”? Well, it’s bad for us, but it’s probably great for a bunch of other species.

*although, technically, there isn’t anything “unnatural” about human activity since we are every bit a part of nature as any other species.

Everything I’ve read suggests the last period of forestation, that being only on the margins, was 80 million ya. At that time that particular plate enjoyed a latitude in what’s presently the southern part of South America.

I’ll bet you the changes immediately following the K-T Boundary impact were a lot faster than the ones we’re going through right now.

Whether something is “natural” or not has nothing whatever to do with whether it is “good” or “bad.” The latter conditions are value judgements and can only be evaluated in human terms. So it’s hard for me to imagine that any scientist would equate “natural” with “not bad” or ''neutral."

If an asteroid were to strike the Earth it would be completely “natural.” However, I would be surprised if anybody wouldn’t think it was “bad.”

During the Eocene (begun ~56 mya) Antarctica was still partially forested, and at largely the same position it is in today. See this map. At the K/T boundary (~65 mya, still much later than 80 mya), the whole of Antarctica/Australia had a warm climate.

Hey, new lake!

Again can’t speak from personal experience (IANAP) but the impression I’ve got from reading articles by Pealontologists, it this: yes the earth has recovered from previous climate change in the distant past (often as a result of greenhouse gas emissions), but the effect they had on organisms unfortunate enough to be around at the time was catastrophic.

Here is one exampe I found on Google:


Evidence for prehistoric spikes in CO2 is found in fossilized plant leaves and fossils showing that heat-loving species migrated toward the polar regions in response to global warming.

“The number of [pores] on the leaves of plants is a direct reflection on how much CO2 is in the atmosphere,” Wignall [paleontologist at the University of Leeds, England] added. “These little holes are for absorbing CO2 into the plant, so if they’re bathed in huge amounts of CO2 then they need very few holes.”

Retallack’s fossil evidence suggests these episodes of dramatic climate change coincide with all the “big five” mass extinction events, as well as a number of other lesser extinctions.


I tried to make my statement that without appearing to put words in your mouth. My apologies if I did.

I am, of course, well aware that whether or not something is natural has nothing to do with whether it is good or bad. My point was that there might be one person who sees the issue of global warming in terms of good and bad, whereas another might view global warming as something that is neither good nor bad, but simply something the planet is going through. I tried to be as clear as possible on that distinction, but hey - Shakespeare, I ain’t.

  • Ol Peculiar

What would we call the new lake? Lake Boom? Lake Ohfuk?