Could fish fossils help us better predict climate change?

Could fish fossils help us better predict climate change?

10:24 PM, 1st November 2011
Could fish fossils help us better predict climate change?

MISSOURI, US: By measuring an element present in fish fossils, researchers at the University of Missouri may have found a key to better understanding how climate change works, reported Forbes recently.

The researchers measured neodymium, an element that indicates where sea water originally came from. The ratio of two isotopes of neodymium varies in different areas, leaving a sort of signature on the water. Fish teeth and bones pick up the same signature from the water where the fish died and fell to the sea floor. Because of that, the ratio of the neodymium isotopes can act as a natural tracking system for water masses, according to Ken MacLeod, a Professor of Geological Science at the university.

This tracking system shows that, in a prehistoric time called the Late Cretaceous Epoch, the deep oceans circulated differently than many scientists had previously thought. “As we look at ancient climates, modern climates and future climates, the same processes are active at all times. It’s largely the same water, physics and chemistry. Understanding the circulation patterns of the past is vitally important to understanding the climate dynamics of the future,” said MacLeod.

“We’re surprising close” to the Cretaceous levels, MacLeod said. As MacLeod stated, “We’re on the bottom edge of the levels that were thought to have existed in the Cretaceous and rapidly heading toward the estimated values during the greenhouse times, including the Late Cretaceous.”

In just a few decades, humans have managed to cause the kind of atmospheric changes that it took geological climate cycles millions of years to accomplish. Predictions for 2100 range from 600 parts per million to 1,000 parts per million, levels similar to those 65 million to 71 million years ago. The estimate for atmospheric carbon dioxide for that period is two to four times preindustrial levels, or roughly between 560 parts per million and 1120 parts per million.

Most models set up to try to figure out what happened during the Late Cretaceous climate changes conclude that water sank from the surface to the bottom of the ocean around Antarctica or the North Pacific. But the fish fossils show that this sinking actually happened in the North Atlantic. Warm water moved into the North Atlantic while the cool waters from the North Atlantic flowed out.

At the same time, temperatures on the land around the North Atlantic also warmed while the rest of the globe cooled. While it’s not yet clear whether the ocean circulation pattern caused the climate changes or vice versa, it’s clear the two are correlated and that circulation in the deep ocean is “A major controlling variable” in climate dynamics, MacLeod said.

He cautions against assuming that we’d see the same circulation patterns as those in prehistoric times if the atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels reach those same highs again. After all, many things have changed since the Late Cretaceous Epoch. But the study’s conclusions certainly raise such questions.

(C) University of Missouri News

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