Humans may have missed an extraordinary event that changed Earth's climate: next up is the millennium heat wave

Dmytro IvancheskulNews
Earth is likely to enter an interglacial period

The Earth's climate may be in a state of transition from an ice age to an interglacial period. This process probably began back in 2006 when the planet experienced a sharp increase in methane emissions, the source of which scientists have been able to unravel only now.

The study was published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles. According to LiveScience, if the scientists' theory is correct, humanity has been living in a "termination" event for 16 years, which is significant enough to end the Ice Age.

Peak methane emissions were first detected in the 2006 data, but after discovering this information, scientists could not understand the source of the methane. At the same time, they saw that emissions were not just staying at a high level but accelerating at a frantic rate all these years.

Now they have found that it is tropical wetlands. They are the ones that emit so much methane into the atmosphere that it can end the ice age and replace the frosty expanses of the tundra with a tropical savanna.

"The 'ending' event is a major reorganization of the Earth's climate system," explained Euan Nisbet, lead author of the study, Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London.

As the scientists explained, the end of ice ages usually occurs in three phases. During the first phase, there is a gradual increase in methane and CO2. This leads to global warming, which lasts for several thousand years. This is followed by a sharp rise in temperature caused by methane emissions, leveling off in the third phase, which lasts several thousand years.

"Between the final phase, which lasts thousands of years, there is a sharp phase that lasts only a few decades. During this abrupt phase, methane soars, and this is probably due to tropical wetlands," Nisbet said.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. It can be released both as a result of human activity, such as fossil fuel combustion, landfills, and agriculture, and as a result of natural processes, such as decomposition in wetlands.

Nisbet said that in the 1980s, emissions from human activity increased dramatically, stabilizing in the 1990s. However, in late 2006, something "very, very strange" happened.

Despite no change in human activity, methane began to rise again. Later, in 2013, Nisbet and his colleagues realized that this growth had not stopped but was accelerating. By 2020, the amount of methane was growing at the fastest rate ever recorded.

Thus, a number of studies that linked this strange surge to the rapid growth of emissions from tropical wetlands, mostly in Africa, were conducted. According to Nisbet, human activity has caused climate change, which has allowed tropical wetlands to grow larger. As there are more plants, this has led to more intense decomposition, the process that produces methane.

"The closest analogy to what we think is happening today is the end of the ice age," Nisbet emphasized.

However, he admits that the theory still needs more evidence.

In the past, the "ending" event resulted in vast expanses of icy tundra in the Northern Hemisphere turning into tropical grasslands where hippos roamed. Scientists are not entirely sure whether the same thing will happen now, but they are convinced that combating methane emissions should be one of the priorities of humanity.

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