Do mammoths warn of a climate crisis?

James O’Donoghue (UK) Did the destruction of forests by mammoths make the Pleistocene Ice Age even colder? It’s an extraordinary prospect. Yet, a leading fossil mammal expert thinks they did just that. Over many tens of thousands of years, mammoths and straight-tusked elephants ate their way through vast tracts of the world’s forests. Trees exert a buffering effect on global climate – take them out and face the prospect of hotter and colder extremes. Mammoths may have turned cool Ice Age periods into freezing ones. Straight-tusked elephants may have made temperatures rise during interglacials. Both types of elephant had all but vanished by 10,000 years ago, never to return. Since then, forest cover has increased sharply while the climate has been unusually mild and stable. Could the two be linked? Humans chopping down forests are now exerting at least as profound an effect on the world’s ecosystems as the mammoths had on theirs. By comparing the destruction wrought then and now, an alarming prospect emerges. Are we in the very process of making our own climate as volatile as that of the extinct elephants? Cores drilled from undisturbed glacial ice in Greenland and Antarctica have provided a wealth of information about almost constant shifts in the Earth’s climate over the past few hundred thousand years. Climatologists will tell you that we live in an interglacial period, in a world that is still going through an ice age that started 1.8Ma with the onset of the Quaternary period. (When I refer … Read More

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