Greenhouse gases in the earth system: a palaeoclimate perspective
While the trends in greenhouse gas concentrations in recent decades are clear, their significance is only revealed when viewed in the context of a longer time period. Fortunately, the air bubbles in polar ice cores provide an unusually direct method of determining the concentrations of stable gases over a period of (so far) 800 000 years. Measurements on different cores with varying characteristics, as well as an overlap of ice-core and atmospheric measurements covering the same time period, show that the ice-core record provides a faithful record of changing atmospheric composition. The mixing ratio of CO2 is now 30 per cent higher than any value observed in the ice-core record, while methane is more than double any observed value; the rate of change also appears extraordinary compared with natural changes. Before the period when anthropogenic changes have dominated, there are very interesting natural changes in concentration, particularly across glacial/interglacial cycles, and these can be used to understand feedbacks in the Earth system. The phasing of changes in temperature and CO2 across glacial/interglacial transitions is consistent with the idea that CO2 acts as an important amplifier of climate changes in the natural system. Even larger changes are inferred to have occurred in periods earlier than the ice cores cover, and these events might be used to constrain assessments of the way the Earth could respond to higher than present concentrations of CO2, and to a large release of carbon: however, more certainty about CO2 concentrations beyond the time period covered by ice cores is needed before such constraints can be fully realized.