Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Cow farts and climate fiddling: has agriculture prevented a new glaciation?

Call me an old grouch, but I have to say that one of my bugbears is the use of the term 'ice age' when what is usually meant is a glacial period. We currently live in an interglacial (i.e. warmer) era, the last glaciation having ended about 11,700 years ago. These periods are part of the Quaternary glaciation that has existed for almost 2.6 million years and deserving of the name 'Ice Age', with alternating but irregular cycles of warm and cold. There, that wasn't too difficult now, was it?

What is rather more interesting is that certain geology textbooks published from the 1940s to 1970s hypothesised that the Earth is overdue for the next glaciation. Since the evidence suggests the last glacial era ended in a matter of decades, the proposed future growth of the ice sheets could be equally rapid. Subsequent research has shown this notion to be flawed, with reliance on extremely limited data leading to over-confident conclusions. In fact, current estimates put interglacial periods as lasting anywhere from ten thousand to fifty thousand years, so even without human intervention in global climate, there would presumably be little to panic about just yet.

Over the past three decades or so this cooling hypothesis has given way to the opposing notion of a rapid increase in global temperatures. You only have to read such recent news items as the breakaway of a six thousand square kilometre piece of the Antarctic ice shelf to realise something is going on, regardless of whether you believe it is manmade, natural or a combination of both. But there is a minority of scientists who claim there is evidence for global warming - and an associated postponement of the next glaciation - having begun thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution. This then generates two key questions:

  1. Has there been a genuine steady increase in global temperature or is the data flawed?
  2. Assuming the increase to be accurate, is it due to natural changes (e.g. orbital variations or fluctuations in solar output) or is it anthropogenic, that is caused by human activity?

As anyone with even a vague interest in or knowledge of climate understands, the study of temperature variation over long timescales is fraught with issues, with computer modelling often seen as the only way to fill in the gaps. Therefore, like weather forecasting, it is far from being an exact science (insert as many smileys here as deemed appropriate). Although there are climate-recording techniques involving dendrochronology (tree rings) and coral growth that cover the past few thousand years, and ice cores that go back hundreds of thousands, there are still gaps and assumptions that mean the reconstructions involve variable margins of error. One cross-discipline assumption is that species found in the fossil record thrived in environments - and crucially at temperatures - similar to their descendants today. All in all this indicates that none of the numerous charts and diagrams displaying global temperatures over the past twelve thousand years are completely accurate, being more along the lines of a reconstruction via extrapolation.

Having looked at some of these charts I have to say that to my untrained eye there is extremely limited correlation for the majority of the post-glacial epoch. There have been several short-term fluctuations in both directions in the past two thousand years alone, from the so-called Mediaeval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age of the Thirteenth to Nineteenth centuries. One issue of great importance is just how wide a region did these two anomalous periods cover outside of Europe and western Asia? Assuming however that the gradual warming hypothesis is correct, what are the pertinent details?

Developed in the 1920s, the Milankovitch cycles provide a reasonable fit for the evidence of regular, long-term variations in the global climate. The theory states that changes in the Earth's orbit and axial tilt are the primary causes of these variations, although the timelines do not provide indisputable correlation. This margin of error has helped to lead other researchers towards an anthropogenic cause for a gradual increase in planet-wide warming since the last glaciation.

The first I heard of this was via Professor Iain Stewart's 2010 BBC series How Earth Made Us, in which he summarised the ideas of American palaeoclimatologist Professor William Ruddiman, author of Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. Although many authors, Jared Diamond amongst them, have noted the effects of regional climate on local agriculture and indeed the society engaged in farming, Professor Ruddiman is a key exponent of the reverse: that pre-industrial global warming has resulted from human activities. Specifically, he argues that the development of agriculture has led to increases in atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide, creating an artificial greenhouse effect long before burning fossil fuels became ubiquitous. It is this form of climate change that has been cited as postponing the next glaciation, assuming that the current interglacial is at the shorter end of such timescales. Ruddiman's research defines two major causes for an increase in these greenhouse gases:

  1. Increased carbon dioxide emissions from burning vegetation, especially trees, as a form of land clearance, i.e. slash and burn agriculture.
  2. Increased methane from certain crops, especially rice, and from ruminant species, mostly cattle and sheep/goat.

There are of course issues surrounding many of the details, even down to accurately pinpointing the start dates of human agriculture around the world. The earliest evidence of farming in the Near East is usually dated to a few millennia after the end of the last glaciation, with animal husbandry preceding the cultivation of crops. One key issue concerns the lack of sophistication in estimating the area of cultivated land and ruminant population size until comparatively recent times, especially outside of Western Europe. Therefore generally unsatisfactory data concerning global climate is accompanied by even less knowledge concerning the scale of agriculture across the planet for most of its existence.

The archaeological evidence in New Zealand proves without a doubt that the ancestors of today's Maori, who probably first settled the islands in the Thirteenth Century, undertook enormous land clearance schemes. Therefore even cultures remote from the primary agricultural civilisations have used similar techniques on a wide scale. The magnitude of these works challenges the assumption that until chemical fertilisers and pesticides were developed in the Twentieth Century, the area of land required per person had altered little since the first farmers. In a 2013 report Professor Ruddiman claims that the level of agriculture practiced by New Zealand Maori is just one example of wider-scale agricultural land use in pre-industrial societies.

As for the role played by domesticated livestock, Ruddiman goes on to argue that ice core data shows an anomalous increase in atmospheric methane from circa 3000BCE onwards. He hypothesises that a rising human population led to a corresponding increase in the scale of agriculture, with rice paddies and ruminants the prime suspects. As mentioned above, the number of animals and size of cultivated areas remain largely conjectural for much of the period in question.  Estimates suggest that contemporary livestock are responsible for 37% of anthropogenic methane and 9% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide whilst cultivated rice may be generating up to 20% of anthropogenic methane. Extrapolating back in time allows the hypothesis to gain credence, despite lack of access to exact data.

In addition, researchers both in support and opposition to pre-industrial anthropogenic global warming admit that the complexity of feedback loops, particularly with respect to the role of temperature variation in the oceans, further complicates matters. Indeed, such intricacy, including the potential latency between cause and effect, means that proponents of Professor Ruddiman's ideas could be using selective data for support whilst suppressing its antithesis. Needless to say, cherry-picking results is hardly model science.

There are certainly some intriguing aspects to this idea of pre-industrial anthropogenic climate change, but personally I think the jury is still out (as I believe it is for the majority of professionals in this area).  There just isn't the level of data to guarantee its validity and what data is available doesn't provide enough correlation to rule out other causes. I still think such research is useful, since it could well prove essential in the fight to mitigate industrial-era global warming. The more we know about longer term variations in climate change, the better the chance we have of understanding the causes - and potentially the solutions - to our current predicament. And who knows, the research might even persuade a few of the naysayers to move in the right direction. That can't be bad!