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The climate changers

Were we spared from an ice age by Stone Age farmers? Hazel Muir investigates

THE romantic notion that early humans lived in harmony with their environment has taken quite a battering lately. Modern humans may have started eliminating other species right from the start: our ancestors stand accused of wiping out megafauna – from giant flightless birds in Australia to mammoths in Asia and the ground sloth of North America – as they spread across the planet.

Even so, by around 6000 years ago there were only about 12 million people on Earth – less than a quarter of the current population of Great Britain. That’s a far cry from today’s 6.6 billion, many of us guzzling fossil fuels, churning out greenhouse gases and messing with our planet’s climate like there’s no tomorrow. So it may seem far-fetched to suggest that humans have been causing global warming ever since our ancestors started burning and cutting forests to make way for fields at least 7000 years ago.

Yet that’s the view of retired climate scientist William Ruddiman, formerly of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Ancient farmers were pumping climate-warming carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere long before recorded history began, he says. Far from causing catastrophe, however, early farmers halted the planet’s descent into another ice age and kept Earth warm and stable for thousands of years.

Could a few primitive farmers really have changed the climate of the entire globe? If you find this hard to believe, you’re not the only one. Ruddiman’s idea has been hugely controversial ever since he proposed it in 2003. “Most new ideas, especially controversial ones, die out pretty fast. It doesn’t take science long to weed them out,” he says. Yet five years on, his idea is still not dead. On the contrary, he says the latest evidence strengthens his case. “It has become clear that natural explanations for the rise in greenhouse gases over the past few thousand years are the ones that are not measuring up, and we can reject them,” he claims.

There is no doubt that the soaring levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases

we see in the atmosphere today – causing a 0.7 °C rise in average global temperature during the 20th century – are the result of human activities. In the late 1990s,however, Ruddiman started to suspect that our contribution to the global greenhouse began to become significant long before the industrial age began. This was when an ice core drilled at the Vostok station in Antarctica revealed how atmospheric CO2 and methane levels have changed over the past 400,000 years. Bubbles trapped in the ice provide a record of the ancient atmosphere during the past three interglacials.

What we see is a regular pattern of rises and falls with a period of about 100,000 years, coinciding with the coming and going of ice ages. There is a good explanation for these cycles: periodic changes in the planet’s orbit and axis of rotation alter the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth (see page 36).We are now in one of the relatively brief, warm interglacial periods that follow an ice age.

Within this larger pattern there are regular peaks in methane every 22,000 years that coincide with the times when the Earth’s orbit makes summers in the northern hemisphere warmest. This makes sense, because warm northern summers drive strong tropical monsoons in southern Asia that both encourage the growth of vegetation and cause flooding during which vegetation rotting in oxygen-poor water will emit methane.Around the Arctic, hot summers thaw wetlands for longer, again promoting both vegetation growth and methane emission.

In recent times, however, this regular pattern has changed. The last methane peak occurred around 11,000 years ago, at about 700 parts per billion, after which levels began to fall. But instead of continuing to fall to what Ruddiman says should have been a minimum of about 450 ppb today, the atmospheric methane began to climb again 5000 years ago.“It just went the wrong way,” Ruddiman says.

Intrigued, he turned to records for CO2.No one understands exactly why the level of atmospheric CO2 varies naturally – a complex combination of factors is involved, from the growth of vegetation to volcanic activity. The Vostok core, however, shows that CO2 levels correlate closely with temperature, peaking at 280 to 300 parts per million as an ice age ends, then falling to lower values. (Today the level is 384 ppm and rising ever faster.)

The spread of rice farming in Asia coincides with an unexplained rise in methane level

This pattern was repeated until about 7000 years ago, when CO2 bucked a downward trend and started to rise again. Just before the industrial era began it was already around 40 ppm higher than would be expected based on the last three previous interglacial periods.

The effect of the rising levels of these greenhouse gases on Earth’s climate would have been significant. The extra 250 ppb of methane and the extra 40 ppm of CO2 would have kept the average global temperature nearly 0.7 °C warmer than it would otherwise have been, equalling the warming during the 20th century due to industrial emissions.

Working with climate modellers Stephen Vavrus and John Kutzbach of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ruddiman has shown that if the levels of these gases had continued to fall rather than rising when they did, ice sheets would now cover swathes of northern Canada and Siberia. The world would be heading into another ice age.

So why did both methane and CO2 rise over the past few thousand years? In other words, why has this interglacial been different from previous ones. Could humans be to blame? Agriculture emerged around the eastern Mediterranean some 11,000 years ago, then shortly afterwards in China, and several thousand years later in the Americas. Farming can release greenhouse gases in various ways: clearing forests liberates lots of stored carbon as the wood rots or is burned, for instance, while flooded rice paddies release methane just as wetlands do.

To find out more about early farming, Ruddiman began to dig around in studies of agricultural history. These revealed that there was a sharp rise in rice cultivation in Asia around 5000 years ago, with the practice spreading across China and south-east Asia. Here at least was a possible source for the unexpected methane rise.

In Europe, people had begun clearing forests to grow cereal crops such as barley and wheat 7500 years ago (see opposite). There is no firm figure for the total extent of this forest clearance, but Ruddiman says it could have been vast. One pointer to this is the Domesday Book, which documents the 11th-century census of England ordered by William the Conqueror. There were 1.5 million people and they had cleared 85 per cent of the forest, Ruddiman says.

Starting around 8000 years ago,

Europes forests were felled to

make way for farmland

“Bill’s idea is that early human influence can be

seen in the atmosphere. He may be right“

When he published his theory in 2003 (Climatic Change, vol 61, p 261), there was no shortage of criticism. The most devastating came from Fortunat Joos at the University of Bern, Switzerland, who pointed out that there was simply not enough forest on Earth to account for the anomalous rise in CO2. Cutting down every tree on the planet wouldnt explain the CO2 rise seen in ice cores over the past 7000 years.

Ruddiman has conceded that Joos was right, and now argues that deforestation and rice growing released enough CO2 and methane to cause a little warming, which then triggered feedback mechanisms that released more CO2, causing further warming and so on, amplifying the influence of early farmers.

That such feedback mechanisms exist is not in doubt. Climate scientists all agree that the magnitude of the temperature changes as the Earth has gone in and out of ice ages cannot be explained by orbital changes alone. The issue is whether early farmers could have released enough CO2 and methane to trigger feedback effects large enough to explain the total observed rise in CO2.

With the help of Vavrus and Kutzbach, Ruddiman is using climate models to explore whether this is plausible. The models suggest that the early human influence might have been great enough to keep the oceans warm compared with previous interglacials. This could have boosted CO2 levels in two ways.Carbon dioxide is less soluble if the oceans are warmer, says Ruddiman. Its a bit like a soda drink bubbling off its gases on a warm summers day.Warmer southern oceans would also mean less sea ice around Antarctica, increasing CO2 levels by boosting gas exchange between the atmosphere and seawater. Both the observational data and our model suggest these two factors are players, Ruddiman says. Whether they fill the entire gap in the CO2 budget we cant say, but they look very promising.

The feedback idea also overcomes another objection to the early anthropogenic hypothesis. During photosynthesis, plants take up a slightly larger proportion of the carbon-12 in the atmosphere than of the heavier isotope, carbon-13. This means that if all the CO2 came from deforestation which reverses the process there should have been a gradual rise in the proportion of carbon-12 in the atmosphere relative to carbon-13.Yet the ice cores show no such thing, a fact pointed out in a 2006 article by renowned climate scientist Wally Broecker of Columbia Universitys Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

If a feedback mechanism was at work, however, 75 per cent of the extra CO2 would have come from the oceans, and the relatively small rise in the proportion of carbon-12 would be consistent with the only isotope record published so far, Ruddiman says.

Whats more, since Ruddiman first suggested his hypothesis, ice core records of atmospheric methane and CO2 levels have been extended back to 800,000 years ago, covering another five interglacial periods, three similar to the present one. So we now have data for six comparable interglacials, all of which suggest the rise in the gases over the past few thousand years is unprecedented, he claims. Natural explanations for the rise have been tested six times and they failed six times 12 times if you allow for the two gases.

Compelling? Emphatically not, says Broecker, who is Ruddimans most fervent critic. Its an insane argument, he says.Its total and utter nonsense.

If Ruddiman wanted to argue that over the last thousand years there had been an effect, that would be harder to argue against because maybe there was, adds Broecker.But if you look at that record during the last thousand years, CO2 sort of flattens out. Just at the time youd think that mans effect would be the strongest, you see the least effect.

Ruddiman argues that this is because deforestation had levelled out. Theres good evidence that most of Eurasia was deforested by the time of Christ, he says.

Broecker reckons theres a natural explanation for the CO2 rise. The deep oceans store lots of carbon as solid calcium carbonate, and deep-sea sediments record a drop in carbonate concentrations that could account for the rise in atmospheric CO2.

But if the CO2 rise before the industrial age is natural, why did it not happen in previous interglacial periods? It did, Broeker claims, during the interglacial period 400,000 years ago (see below). He compares this interglacial with the present one by aligning them from the point at which the previous ice age ended, which shows CO2 naturally staying high, above 270 ppm, for about 28,000 years.Ruddiman aligns the interglacials on the basis of the point in the orbital cycle at which incoming solar radiation is at a minimum, signalling the end of the interglacial. This paints a very different picture.

Other climate experts say its not possible to match the two cycles exactly because the three orbital parameters (see above) were different, so any choice is somewhat arbitrary.

Another of Broeckers complaints is that Ruddiman has handed global-warming deniers some cheap ammunition: if ancient farmers headed off a looming ice age, isnt that a good thing? It confuses the situation and we dont need that, says Broecker.People use it in some curious ways to speak against the effects of global warming, he adds. I get very emotional about it, yes, because I think its very bad science.

Some climate-change deniers did pounce on Ruddimans hypothesis when it was first publicised, but largely dropped it when it was pointed out that they were effectively conceding that humans really do cause climate change. Many researchers, by contrast, remain intrigued by Ruddimans idea. We know that humans have had a lot of influence, says Richard Alley, a geologist at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. Bills idea is that you see it in the atmosphere. He may be right.

Without early farmers, ice sheets might be growing in Siberia and Canada

Some climate-change deniers did pounce on Ruddimans hypothesis when it was first publicised, but largely dropped it when it was pointed out that they were effectively conceding that humans really do cause climate change. Many researchers, by contrast, remain intrigued by Ruddimans idea. We know that humans have had a lot of influence, says Richard Alley, a geologist at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. Bills idea is that you see it in the atmosphere. He may be right.

Alley is impressed by a paper that Ruddiman and his colleagues published this year in Quaternary Science Reviews (vol 27,p 1291) which shows that the number of new rice-growing sites appearing in China from 6000 to 4000 years ago was 10 times that in previous millennia. I would not say Ruddiman wins, its over, lets go home but I think that hes making a lot of progress with the methane.

Geochemist Ed Brook at Oregon State University in Corvallis isnt so sure. He says the methane rise over the past 5000 years could have arisen from wetlands in the southern hemisphere. There are some nice records from caves in South America that show that region was getting wetter.

On CO2, things are even more uncertain.Its a tough one, because the evidence is primarily circumstantial, Brook says.Im just as willing to think that