Wednesday, February 5, 2014

New paper finds pre-industrial farming caused more global warming than the entire industrial revolution

A new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters finds pre-industrial farming caused more global warming than the entire industrial revolution. According to the authors, pre-industrial agriculture caused 0.9°C global warming, which is greater than the 0.7°C global warming since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1850. 

The paper demonstrates land-use changes may be more significant as a primary climate forcing compared to the trivial effect of man-made CO2 on the climate. 

Pre-Industrial Farming Sprouted Global Warming

By Becky Oskin, Live Science

Date: 05 February 2014 Time: 01:51 PM ET

Rice fields Mu Cang Chai, Vietnam

Early farmers boosted Earth's temperature by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) over a period of 8,000 years, a new study suggests.

"This is almost as large as the global warming in the past 150 years," said Feng He, lead study author and a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "That means early agricultural is as powerful as the whole Industrial Revolution."

However, the study concludes that the net warming caused by early humans was only 1.3 degrees F (0.73 degrees C), thanks to a slight cooling of 0.31 degrees F (0.17 degrees C) due to more sunlight reflecting from cleared land.

The new work suggests that early cultures were global warming turtles, slowly raising temperatures by adding carbon dioxide and methane (both greenhouse gases) to Earth's atmosphere over thousands of years. In contrast, post-Industrial Revolution societies are climate change rabbits, with temperatures rising about 1.53 degrees F (0.85 degrees C) between 1880 and 2012, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Actually 0.7C since 1850 according to HADCRU]

The study adds to an ongoing debate over the influence of pre-industrial humans on Earth's climate. While 1850 is often picked as the kickoff for global warming, human activities such as deforestation and agriculture could have shifted the climate earlier. Ice cores suggest this is the case: carbon dioxide and methane levels over the past 8,000 years don't follow their usual post-ice age trends. The gases go up as human population booms, instead of their usual decline [uh no, CO2 lags temperatures by 800-1000 years in ice core data, and increases with warming due to ocean outgassing]. But some scientists say this is simply natural variability.

The idea that pre-industrial humans significantly affected Earth's climate "is still a hypothesis, but it has huge climate implications," He told Live Science. "The climate has some inertia, and what has happened in the past 150 years may not be long enough to tell us what will happen in the future."

He and his co-authors estimated past global temperatures with climate models that calculated the effects of land-cover changes such as deforestation and irrigation. Their findings were published Jan. 24 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The study compared climate models of a human-free Earth to a planet crawling with hunter-gatherers and farmers. The researchers used estimates of past land-use from a 2011 study led by Jed Kaplan of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who built a detailed model of land-use over time based on historical and archaeological data.

After the last ice age ended, carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere should have dropped to about 245 parts per million (ppm) and 445 ppm without human influence on the planet, He said. (Parts per million denotes the volume of a gas in the air; in this case, of every 1 million air molecules, 245 are carbon dioxide.)

Instead, the models suggest that carbon dioxide rose about 40 ppm, to 285 ppm, and methane jumped to 790 ppm, a 345 ppm rise, as early humans chopped down trees and irrigated rice fields.

"In terms of long-term climate change, the last several thousand years are unique because of this human factor in it," He said. "It's almost like we're on a speeding train without a brake, but we are continually putting in the coal into the engine."


  1. You said that "methane jumped to 790 ppm". Should that have been parts per billion (ppb) rather than ppm?

    1. yes

      article was written by Live Science, not me