Studying warm climates of the past can reveal our future

New research combines climate modelling with fossil shell analysis to understand what a warm future could be like over Western Europe.

The research was co-authored by Dr Julia Tindall at the School of Earth and Environment

Dr Tindall and colleagues modelled the Pliocene climate, which was about three million years ago. They compared temperatures with those derived from the chemical composition of Pliocene-aged fossil shells from the North Sea. 

The Pliocene is an ideal period to compare to our near future, as the Earth was on average 2.5 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer than it is now.

This warming is similar to model simulations for the year 2100 under the moderate Shared Socioeconomic Pathway SSP2-4.5 mapped by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The research, titled ‘Amplified seasonality in western Europe in a warmer world’ is now published in Science Advances. 

European summers heat up more than winters 

Climate models and fossil shells show that in warmer climates like the Pliocene, summer temperatures in Western Europe increase more than winter temperatures. 

Summers in the Pliocene were about 4.3 degrees warmer than summers in preindustrial times, while winters were 2.5 degrees warmer than preindustrial winters. 

The researchers see a similar result in models projecting future climate, which predict a similar amount of warming as the Pliocene for the year 2100. 

However, the Pliocene results are confirmed by independent data from the fossils, something that is not possible for future climate change projections. 

Consequences of seasonal temperature changes 

Documenting the seasonal temperature cycle helps us understand and act upon the consequences of a warmer world. 

The consequences of these changes include heatwaves and changes in rainfall patterns. In turn, these affect biodiversity, public health, agriculture, migration, the economy and more. 

The study gives us a glimpse of what the climate in Europe will be like if we continue our current trend towards a warmer world. 

Dr Tindall said: “Multiple lines of evidence now suggest stronger temperature differences between summer and winter over Western Europe in a warmer world. The chance of heatwaves during the summer will likely increase.” 

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