Humans are releasing carbon into the oceans and atmosphere roughly 10 times faster than during any event in the past 66 million years, thrusting the planet into an uncertain future, according to new research.

Richard Zeebe, a professor at the University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, and colleagues from the University of California explored changes in Earth’s temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide since the end of the age of the dinosaurs, a UH news release says. Their findings were published Monday in Nature Geoscience.

“If you kick a system very fast, it usually responds differently than if you nudge it slowly but steadily,” Zeebe said in the release.

IODP’s JOIDES Resolution has recovered PETM sediment cores during past expeditions. The deep-sea sediment helps scientists understand the rate of carbon release.
IODP’s JOIDES Resolution has recovered PETM sediment cores during past expeditions. The deep-sea sediment helps scientists understand the rate of carbon release. Courtesy: IODP

He said it’s also “rather likely” that future disruptions of ecosystems will exceed the relatively limited extinctions observed in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, about 56 million years ago. The PETM has the largest carbon release during the past 66 million years, he added.

“Because our carbon release rate is unprecedented over such a long time period in Earth’s history, it also means that we have effectively entered a ‘no-analogue’ state,” Zeebe said. “This represents a big challenge for projecting future climate changes because we have no good comparison from the past.”

Candace Major, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research, said in the release that the latest research shows the planet is in “uncharted territory” when it comes to the rate carbon is being released into the atmosphere and oceans.

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