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Perspective: Our Modern-Day Ragnarök

Reed Scherer

When giving public lectures on global climate change, I occasionally get pushback from an audience member or two with some version of “climate has always changed.” Recently, Washington Post columnist George Will pushed back on the dire 6th climate assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with this old line. The key difference is that the rate of current change and the cause is unprecedented in earth history. How do we know that? I’m recording this Perspective from the deck of a scientific drillship in the Norwegian Sea. We’re investigating a dramatic and catastrophic climate event that occurred 55 million years ago, hoping to test the hypothesis that as Greenland ripped from Scandinavia, global temperature spiked 5 degrees as massive amounts of CO2 were expelled. The event we call the PETM played out over more than 100,000 years – still a geologically brief event. But the current rate of CO2 rise from our burning of fossil fuels is far higher than any natural event in Earth history. And we can now see the undeniable effects playing out all over the world.

As we drill into the Norwegian Sea floor to learn more about the PETM I think about the Norse legend of Ragnarök, where a global cataclysm led to death of the world. So we ask the question, “Has modern Ragnarök/PETM already begun?”

In fact, it’s still not too late to avoid the worst outcomes, but we have to act now to seriously cut our carbon emissions before a modern-day Ragnarök fully descends on us all.

I’m Reed Scherer in the Norwegian Sea, and that’s my Perspective.

You can follow the expedition on Twitter by using #exp396 and through @SchererReed.
There's more information on the expedition on the ship's log and here.

A member of the Northern Illinois University faculty of Geology and Environmental Geosciences since 2000, Reed Scherer's research spans the spectrum from the smallest of fossils (diatoms) to the largest (dinosaurs). Most of his research relates to the vulnerability of the Antarctic ice sheet to climate change.