Exploring Earth’s Geological History to Show Impact of Greenhouse Gases | WYPR

Exploring Earth’s Geological History to Show Impact of Greenhouse Gases

Jan 30, 2019

Photo of book "The Ends of the World"
Credit Ecco Press

Climate change is one of the most important public policy issues facing the world. But many elected officials, and even news organizations, still portray global warming as a controversial and disputed scientific theory, with arguments on both sides.

For example, here’s the President of the United States.  “Obama was talking about all of this global warming. And a lot of that is a hoax, it’s a hoax,” President Trump said at a rally. “I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay? It’s a hoax.”

But climate change is not a hoax, or even something that scientists with supercomputers have predicted for the future. The geological record of the Earth’s history shows that, whenever carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up, temperatures have also risen – often with catastrophic consequences.

Rocks are not political. Rocks do not have a profit motive.  So we should pay more attention to the hard, geological record of the past when discussing the future. This is a conclusion of Peter Brannen’s book, “The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions.”

“Climate change has become such a politically charged issue that by talking about geology and all these crazy old animals, it was sort of a way to introduce people to the topic in a way that isn’t instantly divisive,” Brannen said in an interview.

Among the ‘crazy old animals’ he discusses in his book are priapulids, known more informally by scientists as ‘penis worms’ because of their shape.  They were finger-sized, carnivorous worms that haunted ocean floors 500 million years ago, digging burrows and shooting out to devour blob-shaped, bacteria-eating, competing species.

Brannen introduces these creatures in the context of climate change deniers today who argue that it’s arrogant for humans to assume that they are powerful enough to alter the Earth because only God could do that.

Well, consider the humble Penis worm, Brannen suggests.

”They were what’s called ecosystem engineers. So they were totally changing the way the environment worked, they were changing the chemistry of the oceans.  They changed the world, really,” Brannen said. “This was sort of the beginning of animal life.  And something that modest, it’s amazing that it could have such a huge impact on the planet and earth history and life.  And so when you then look at human beings, and the way that we are completely just transforming the oceans and the atmosphere – moving around just unimaginable amounts of earth every year.  It’s not that big of a leap to think that we having as big, or as profound, an influence on the planet, and on life, as these much more modest and simple creatures.”

Five times in Earth’s history, mass extinctions have wiped out at least 75 percent of life forms, Brannen writes in his book. At least four of these die-offs were triggered by dramatic swings in heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Often this CO2 came from massive volcanic eruptions.

But today, people are producing a similar effect as volcanoes by releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide from our coal-fired power plants and oil-burning combustion engines, Brannen said.

“So we are now the super-volcano,” Brannen said. “And that’s both scary -- that we could be using the same kinds of mechanisms as geological forces that have killed almost everything in the planet. But it’s also encouraging, because those were just mindless geological processes.  And we’re a smart, adaptable species that knows what we’re doing.”

So, we can still avert catastrophe…if we just open our eyes…and look at history.