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Ancient ice tells scientists about climate change

University of Maine research has focused on the Arctic because it is highly sensitive to temperatures and warming there can lead to changes elsewhere.
Credit: Natchapon - stock.adobe.com

ORONO, Maine — Inside a laboratory building at the University of Maine, a metal door opens and you step into a 16-below-zero chill.

Welcome to the world of ancient ice.

Dr. Paul Mayewski is director of the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, a wide-ranging graduate and research program that studies how climate has changed over the centuries and millennia, and how it is changing now.

Ice is one of their key indicators.

Inside the large, walk-in freezer are boxes and tracks of ice cores, samples taken from deep inside glaciers around the world. Some of them, Mayewski said, date back hundreds of thousands of years. Trapped in that ice, he said, are chemical clues to how the climate has evolved, and of particular interest is the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate we live in.

“We know for a fact the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today are more than 50% higher than they have ever been in the last 850,000 years,” Mayewski said

Those greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, are blamed for heating up the earth’s atmosphere, leading to the climate change that has fueled so much concern and controversy.

Researchers say those increases correspond to various human activities, such as burning fossil fuels. 

RELATED: Maine's Changing Climate Special 2021

Mayewski said much of their research has focused on the Arctic because it is highly sensitive to temperatures and warming there can lead to changes elsewhere.

The Arctic experienced what he calls “abrupt change” in temperatures from 2007 to 2012.

“Temperatures increased over a five-year period between 8 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s annual temperatures, not just summer or winter. That is as big a change in temperature, and as fast a change, as occurred between the last vestiges of the Ice Age and modern-day climate eleven-and-a-half thousand years ago.”

And while there are still skeptics about climate change, Mayewski said the research leaves little room for doubt that modern life is a major cause of the warming climate.

“We know this is not a natural cycle, because we have records that go back hundreds and thousands of years that show us what has been happening the last 20 to 30 years is anomalous," he said. "It happened much too fast, the increase in temperature has been much too fast [to be from a natural cause]."

The warming, he said, is leading to less stable conditions, which are affecting weather and many aspects of life.

RELATED: Maine bird species may become extinct in our lifetime as climate warms

“It's creating instabilities in our climate today, resulting in widespread drought, flooding, excessive storms, migration of invasive species, like ticks to Maine," Mayewski said. "And a whole variety of things that impact our health and the ecosystem health.”

 All those concerns drive debates over how, and whether, to eliminate fossil fuel burning, convert transportation to electricity, and how to generate more electricity from clean, renewable sources. There are also concerns about how to protect the essentials of life, such as adequate water supplies. 

The Maine Climate Council's Climate Action Plan includes specific targets, such as:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, and by 80% below by 2050.
  • Convert Maine’s electricity supply to obtain 80% from renewables by 2030 
  • 41,000 electric vehicles by 2025, and 219,000 by 2030
  • 100,000 homes with heat pumps by 2025

Read the full plan here


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