Rapid Climate Change

American Institute of Physics www.aip.org

Physics Today
August 2003, page 30

The Discovery of Rapid Climate Change

Only within the past decade have researchers warmed to the possibility of abrupt shifts in Earth’s climate. Sometimes, it takes a while to see what one is not prepared to look for.

Spencer Weart

How fast can our planet’s climate change? Too slowly for humans to notice, according to the firm belief of most scientists through much of the 20th century. Any shift of weather patterns, even the Dust Bowl droughts that devastated the Great Plains in the 1930s, was seen as a temporary local excursion. To be sure, the entire world climate could change radically: The ice ages proved that. But common sense held that such transformations could only creep in over tens of thousands of years.

In the 1950s, a few scientists found evidence that some of the great climate shifts in the past had taken only a few thousand years. During the 1960s and 1970s, other lines of research made it plausible that the global climate could shift radically within a few hundred years. In the 1980s and 1990s, further studies reduced the scale to the span of a single century. Today, there is evidence that severe change can take less than a decade. A committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has called this reorientation in the thinking of scientists a veritable “paradigm shift.” The new paradigm of abrupt global climate change, the committee reported in 2002, “has been well established by research over the last decade, but this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policymakers.”1

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