Climate Change In The Deep Future

Deep future.  A paleoclimatologist takes a long look at where we’re all headed.

An image showing streetlights on Earth at night, part of an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington (AP)

An image showing streetlights on Earth at night, part of an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington (AP)

On special days, when we really put our minds to looking ahead, we might peer twenty, fifty, maybe a hundred years into the future.  And that’s a stretch.

Paleo-climatologist Curt Stager goes somewhat further. Into the past and into the future.  A hundred thousand years into the future.  Looking at planetary warming and cooling and consequences- hot ages and ice ages.

He says we, humans, will be around a hundred thousand years from now.  That’s news all on its own.  And what about the planet?  He’ll tell us.

This hour, On Point: deep future, and what’s to come.

- Tom Ashbrook


Curt Stager, paleoecologist and professor at Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, New York. He is a science journalist who has written for National Geographic and Adirondack Life and is co-host of “Natural Selections,” a weekly science program on North Country Public Radio. His new book is “Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth.”

Bill McKibben, environmentalist and author. He is co-founder of, an environmental group working to help solve the climate crisis. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is author of “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.”


Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth
By Curt Stager

Chapter 1, Stopping the Ice

One can only hope that the expected extremes of the Anthropocene will not lead to conditions that cross the threshold to glaciation.
—Frank Sirocko, paleoclimatologist.

Shockingly long-term climatic changes await us as a result of modern human activity, but examining our effects on the deep future also raises a related question that is well worth considering: what would global climates have been like if we had left our fossil fuels in the ground rather than burning them?

In that alternative reality our descendants would still fret about climate, sea levels, and ice caps but the news would read quite differently from that of today. “There’s a massive, destructive climatic change coming, but scientists say that we can stop it if we take appropriate action now. If we go about business as usual, coastal settlements will be destroyed by sea-level shifts and entire nations will be covered with water. Frozen water. But there’s still hope. If we simply burn enough fossil fuels, we’ll warm the atmosphere enough to delay that icy disaster for thousands of years.”

I’m talking about the next ice age. When a paleoecologist like myself thinks about global climate change the exercise is as likely to involve visions of ice-sheet invasions as it is to include greenhouse warming. We still don’t know exactly why continent-sized glaciations come and go as they do, but they clearly have a rhythmic quality to them. Natural cyclic pulses take the long line of temperature history and snap it like a whip, looping it into a series of steep coolings and warmings. When viewed from a long-term perspective, major warmings of the past 2 to 3 million years can seem like brief thermal respites when the world came up for air between long icy dives; that’s why we call them “interglacials” rather than something that sounds more normal or permanent. The cyclic pattern also suggests that more ice ages await us in the future, so strongly in fact that climate scientists routinely refer to our own postglacial warm phase that we live in today as “the present interglacial.” Because of this admittedly unusual perspective, many of the paleoecologists I know balance their concerns about modern climate change with “yes, but it could also be a lot worse.”

Although such views are rare outside of narrow academic circles, I believe that they belong in the mainstream. Time perspectives long enough to include ice age prevention are not just the stuff of mind games but potentially important aspects of rational planning for our climatic future.

From Deep Future by Curt Stager. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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