Compared to the lifespan of Planet Earth, human beings have burned fossil fuels for only an extremely brief period of time.
But science has shown that continuing to do so on a large scale for even a short while longer could bring on disastrous climate change.
And now a new study suggests the effects of climate change could last much longer than many originally anticipated.
A group of 22 climate researchers claims that today's heavy carbon emissions will lead to changes that will still be felt 10,000 years from now.
Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, their study argues that the discussion of climate change has been shortsighted, only looking at impacts for the next 100 years or so.
This narrower view "was originally driven by past computational abilities," but new methods allow researchers to estimate the effects of climate change further in the future, the study claims.
Offshore Oil RigEnlarge Photo
The carbon already dispersed into the atmosphere by human industry will remain there for a very long time before natural processes can eliminate it, according to the study.
A "considerable fraction" of the carbon emitted so far and in the next 100 years "will remain in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of thousands of years," it says.
And humanity has already emitted a lot of carbon.
Since 1750, human activities have generated 580 gigatons of carbon, according to the study, and humanity is still emitting roughly 10 gigatons per year.
Assuming cumulative carbon emissions of 5,120 gigatons by the end of this century, the Earth could be 7.0 degrees Celsius warmer in 10,000 years, with sea levels 52 meters (170 feet) higher than today, the study claims.
In that scenario, Greenland would lose all of its ice, and Antarctica would experience almost 45 meters (147 feet) of sea-level rise.
Smog in Hong Kong [Image by Flickr user inkelv1122]Enlarge Photo
Even in a more optimistic scenario--with 1,280 gigatons of total carbon emissions--the Earth would still be 2.0 degrees Celsius warmer in 10,000 years, with seas 25 meters (82 feet) higher.
Current efforts to curtail the burning of fossil fuels could help prevent this ghastly vision of the future, of course.
But equally as important to the state of the Earth in 10,000 years could be technologies that scrub carbon from the air, Raymond Pierrehumbert, an Oxford University geoscientist and one of the study's authors, told The Washington Post.
He said humanity could develop carbon-removal technology in the coming centuries, although he's unsure how much it will cost.
It's also unclear what shape human society will take in the next few centuries, and whether it will remain in a position to develop and deploy such technology.
One certainty, though, is that the effects of climate change will only get worse if human civilization continues to consume fossil fuels at the rate it currently does.
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