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Read PDF A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (Page-Barbour Lectures)

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In each hundred-thousand year period, there is an ice-age that lasts about ninety thousand years and a warm interglacial period that lasts about ten thousand years. We are at present in a warm period that began twelve thousand years ago, so the onset of the next ice-age is overdue.

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If human activities were not disturbing the climate, a new ice-age might already have begun. We do not know how to answer the most important question: do our human activities in general, and our burning of fossil fuels in particular, make the onset of the next ice-age more likely or less likely? On the one side, we know that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was much lower during past ice-ages than during warm periods, so it is reasonable to expect that an artificially high level of carbon dioxide might stop an ice-age from beginning.

ISBN 10: 0813926637

On the other side, the oceanographer Wallace Broecker [Broecker, ] has argued that the present warm climate in Europe depends on a circulation of ocean water, with the Gulf Stream flowing north on the surface and bringing warmth to Europe, and with a counter-current of cold water flowing south in the deep ocean. So a new ice-age could begin whenever the cold deep counter-current is interrupted.

The counter-current could be interrupted when the surface water in the Arctic becomes less salty and fails to sink, and the water could become less salty when the warming climate increases the Arctic rainfall. Thus Broecker argues that a warm climate in the Arctic may paradoxically cause an ice-age to begin.

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Since we are confronted with two plausible arguments leading to opposite conclusions, the only rational response is to admit our ignorance. Until the causes of ice-ages are understood, we cannot know whether the increase of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing or decreasing the danger.

This small thickening, sustained over thousands of years and spread over the vast expanse of these sectors of Antarctica, corresponds to a very large gain of ice — enough to outweigh the losses from fast-flowing glaciers in other parts of the continent and reduce global sea level rise. You are commenting using your WordPress.

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A Many-colored Glass

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Series: The Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia

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