U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers are at the forefront of paleoclimate research, the study of past climates. With their unique skills and perspective, only geologists have the tools necessary to delve into the distant past (long before instrumental records were collected) in order to better understand global environmental conditions that were very different from today's conditions. Paleoclimatologists are geologists who study past climates to answer questions about what the Earth was like in the past and to enable projections, plans, and preparations for the future.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected a future warmer climate that has the potential to affect every person on Earth. Extreme weather events, rising sea level, and migrating ecosystems and resources could result in worldwide socio-economic stresses if not met with prudent and proactive action plans based on quality scientific research. Still, the most dangerous aspect of our changing climate is the uncertainty in the exact nature and rate of projected climate change.
To reduce the uncertainties, USGS paleoclimatologists are studying a possible analog to a future warmer climate. The middle part of the Piacenzian Stage of the Pliocene Epoch, about 3.3 to 3.0 million years ago, is the most recent period in Earth's history in which global warmth reached and remained at temperatures similar to those projected for the end of this century, about 2 degrees C to 3 degrees C warmer on average than today over the entire globe. This past warmer time interval preceded the ice ages but was recent enough, geologically, to be very similar to today in terms of ocean circulation and the position of the continents. Also, the populations of plants and animals were much like those of today, and so geologists can use their fossils to estimate past environmental conditions such as temperature and sea level.