Frontiers of Knowledge Award to the discoverers of a remote global warming that helps to understand the current

The latest edition of the BBVA Foundation’s Frontiers of Knowledge Award, in the Climate Change category, went to paleoclimatologists James Zachos, from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Ellen Thomas, from Yale and Wesleyan Universities “for their outstanding contribution to the discovery of an important natural event in the fossil record that offers a powerful analogy to anthropogenic climate change,” according to the jury.

In the 1990s, Zachos and Thomas discovered an anomalous episode in our planet’s history, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), in which massive emissions of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and global temperature rose by between 5 and 6° Ç.

The event, possibly triggered by volcanic activity, made the oceans more acidic and triggered one of the largest known extinctions of deep-sea organisms in the planet’s history.

The greenhouse effect generated by the PETM, which occurred 56 million years ago, is comparable to current climate changes caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

The similarities in terms of carbon emissions, rising temperatures and ocean acidification, combined with the level of detail with which that episode is known, allow testing the predictions of numerical models.

“Zachos and Thomas’ research laid the groundwork for the climate change prediction models that are currently being used,” explains Laia Alegret, professor of paleontology at the University of Zaragoza and academic at the Royal Academy of Exact Sciences, Físicas y Naturales , which nominated the researchers for the Frontiers of Knowledge Award.

The PETM constitutes a “natural experiment” that has been fundamental to validate and delimit the models that are used today to predict the future evolution of the climate, as stated by Professor Zachos (California, USA, 1959) in an interview given to nada mais to know the error.

Like Ellen Thomas (Hengelo, Netherlands, 1950), she believes that the destructive impact of that event should serve as a warning to reduce current greenhouse gas emissions and thus avoid the worst scenarios of global warming, such as increased sea ​​level pollution, floods, droughts, extreme weather events and loss of biodiversity.

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Story of a Discovery

The discovery of the PETM began in 1987 with an ocean drilling expedition in Antarctica in which Ellen Thomas participated and, according to the award-winner, it happened by “serendipity”, by chance, while she was studying microorganisms from the bottom of the sea: the foraminifera.

Finding the layer that corresponded to the boundary between the Paleocene and Eocene, he observed a truly surprising mass extinction in an environment so stable, then it could only be due to a dramatic change on a global scale. Thomas noted that pronounced global warming occurred in parallel with the mass extinction and discussed this in detail.

A little later, definitive confirmation of this phenomenon came thanks to the investigations of James Zachos. The scientist analyzed terrestrial sediments obtained in Wyoming (USA) and observed certain changes in the nature of the carbon present in the sediments precisely at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary.

“Suddenly, all the pieces started to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and they also agreed with the greenhouse effect theory”, points out the winner. What Thomas had observed under the sea, Zachos was observing in terrestrial environments thousands and thousands of kilometers away.

Since then, the two have collaborated to unravel the planet’s climate fluctuations throughout geological history. In 2001, they published an article in Science magazine where they presented the most complete temperature curve of the last 65 million years –known as the “Zachos curve”–, a study that is still one of the most cited in geosciences.

All of this historical knowledge that Zachos and Thomas contributed has served to provide feedback to the models with which the consequences of current climate change are predicted and to assess the extent to which their predictions are correct. “We were able to prove that the greenhouse effect theory is basically correct,” says Zachos, “and that gave us confidence in our ability to predict the climate of the future.”

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