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In response to growing concerns about our planet’s changing climate, rising global temperatures and sea levels, and increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), scientists are looking to the planet’s past to help predict its future. New results from a research expedition in Antarctic waters may provide critical clues to understanding one of the most dramatic periods of climatic change in Earth's history - and a glimpse into what might lie far ahead in our climate’s future.
The poles control much of our global climate. Giant ice sheets in Antarctica behave like mirrors, reflecting the sun's energy and moderating the world's temperatures. The waxing and waning of these ice sheets contribute to changes in sea level and affect ocean circulation, which regulates our climate by transporting heat around the planet.
Despite their present-day cold temperatures, the poles were not always covered with ice. New climate records recovered from Antarctica during the recent Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) "Wilkes Land Glacial History" Expedition show that approximately 53 million years ago, Antarctica was a warm, sub-tropical environment. During this same period, known as the "greenhouse" or "hothouse" world, atmospheric CO2 levels exceeded those of today by ten times.