The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future

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Overview

"The Two-Mile Time Machine takes a story that has been much discussed in the press and revitalizes it with the author's infectious enthusiasm and with background information on the history of ice core drilling. It provides an excellent survey for the general reader and those interested in the history of scientific exploration and issues related to science and society."—Thomas J. Crowley, Texas A & M University

"Richard Alley takes the reader from the rationale for the study of ice sheets to the story of how ice cores are recovered and how we read the climate and environment of the past recorded therein. He does a good job putting his message on the human time scale and makes his information accessible to the general reader."—Lonnie G. Thompson, The Ohio State University

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Editorial Reviews

Books & Culture
[A] superb book. . . . Alley demonstrates that the scientific understanding of climate is both a lot more complex, and a lot simpler, than public perceptions might indicate. . . .The Two-Mile Time Machine restores some of the joy of discovery that has always been present in scientific work, but is often lost amidst today's furious research pace and compressed news cycles.
— Cathering H. Crouch
The Times of London - Angus Clarke
Alley's . . . striking finding is that the earth's climate has always been wildly variable and subject to dramatic swings—except during the past 10,000 years. So the period during which humankind has established itself across the globe and made the transition from grubby bands of hunter-gatherers to the dubious majesty of global capitalism corresponds exactly to a freakishly stable period in the earth's climate.
New Scientist - David Peel
With a highly readable style designed to capture and stimulate the imagination of his students, Alley explains some of the complexities of Earth system science with a minimum of jargon. This book is not just for students: it will be readily accessible to a wide audience that should be aware of its contents.
Christian Science Monitor - Robert C. Cowen
[A] provocative little book . . . a compelling tale of climate sleuthing . . .[Alley] is authoritative without being dogmatic, concerned without being alarmist.
American Scientist - J.A. Rial
Books in which scientists write about their professional experience and describe in lay terms the stuff that makes them excited about science rarely disappoint. Richard Alley's The Two Mile Time Machine is no exception. It describes a fascinating journey into the geologic past and the history of the Earth's climate. . . . Alley ends his entertaining book by polishing his crystal ball, envisioning what the future climate will be, and what we might do about it.
Books and Culture - Cathering H. Crouch
[A] superb book. . . . Alley demonstrates that the scientific understanding of climate is both a lot more complex, and a lot simpler, than public perceptions might indicate. . . .The Two-Mile Time Machine restores some of the joy of discovery that has always been present in scientific work, but is often lost amidst today's furious research pace and compressed news cycles.
American Journal of Physics - Al Bartlett
A fascinating first-hand story. . . . [A]n engaging narrative about the processes of obtaining, analyzing, and interpreting the ice cores. . . . Scientists, students, and the general public all need to know the present state of our incomplete understanding of the global climate system. This book provides an excellent foundation
Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society - Thomas Stocker
It is . . . refreshing to read a book that tells us in easy words, but with sufficient depth, how scientists have obtained the information about past climate change that is the basis for worries about the future. Richard Alley is a world authority in the science of ice cores and climate, and his book fills the large gap between technical and scholarly words for students of climate science and the short articles about these topics that are often found in the popular science magazines. The book addresses the interested layperson; following the story does not require special scientific knowledge. [It] is an excellent messenger of scientific endeavor and the enrichment this brings to society.
From the Publisher
"It is . . . refreshing to read a book that tells us in easy words, but with sufficient depth, how scientists have obtained the information about past climate change that is the basis for worries about the future. Richard Alley is a world authority in the science of ice cores and climate, and his book fills the large gap between technical and scholarly words for students of climate science and the short articles about these topics that are often found in the popular science magazines. The book addresses the interested layperson; following the story does not require special scientific knowledge. [It] is an excellent messenger of scientific endeavor and the enrichment this brings to society."—Thomas Stocker, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society

New Scientist
With a highly readable style designed to capture and stimulate the imagination of his students, Alley explains some of the complexities of Earth system science with a minimum of jargon. This book is not just for students: it will be readily accessible to a wide audience that should be aware of its contents.
— David Peel
Christian Science Monitor
[A] provocative little book . . . a compelling tale of climate sleuthing . . .[Alley] is authoritative without being dogmatic, concerned without being alarmist.
— Robert C. Cowen
American Scientist
Books in which scientists write about their professional experience and describe in lay terms the stuff that makes them excited about science rarely disappoint. Richard Alley's The Two Mile Time Machine is no exception. It describes a fascinating journey into the geologic past and the history of the Earth's climate. . . . Alley ends his entertaining book by polishing his crystal ball, envisioning what the future climate will be, and what we might do about it.
— J.A. Rial
Choice
A superlative account of a complex topic . . . It is refreshingly straightforward to read, often humorous, yet still deadly serious, complete with anecdotes and understandable explanations of complex processes.
Books and Culture
[A] superb book. . . . Alley demonstrates that the scientific understanding of climate is both a lot more complex, and a lot simpler, than public perceptions might indicate. . . .The Two-Mile Time Machine restores some of the joy of discovery that has always been present in scientific work, but is often lost amidst today's furious research pace and compressed news cycles.
— Cathering H. Crouch
American Journal of Physics
A fascinating first-hand story. . . . [A]n engaging narrative about the processes of obtaining, analyzing, and interpreting the ice cores. . . . Scientists, students, and the general public all need to know the present state of our incomplete understanding of the global climate system. This book provides an excellent foundation
— Al Bartlett
Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
It is . . . refreshing to read a book that tells us in easy words, but with sufficient depth, how scientists have obtained the information about past climate change that is the basis for worries about the future. Richard Alley is a world authority in the science of ice cores and climate, and his book fills the large gap between technical and scholarly words for students of climate science and the short articles about these topics that are often found in the popular science magazines. The book addresses the interested layperson; following the story does not require special scientific knowledge. [It] is an excellent messenger of scientific endeavor and the enrichment this brings to society.
— Thomas Stocker
The Times of London
Alley's . . . striking finding is that the earth's climate has always been wildly variable and subject to dramatic swings—except during the past 10,000 years. So the period during which humankind has established itself across the globe and made the transition from grubby bands of hunter-gatherers to the dubious majesty of global capitalism corresponds exactly to a freakishly stable period in the earth's climate.
— Angus Clarke
New Scientist
With a highly readable style designed to capture and stimulate the imagination of his students, Alley explains some of the complexities of Earth system science with a minimum of jargon. This book is not just for students: it will be readily accessible to a wide audience that should be aware of its contents.
— David Peel
Robert C. Cowen
As Richard Alley notes in this provocative little book, the climate we love to hate "is about as good as it gets." We better learn to love it enough to make the considerable effort it will take to understand our climate system: how to make the most of it and how not to upset it. The Pennsylvania State University geophysicist channels this scientific insight into a compelling tale of climate sleuthing. His technical detail skillfully avoids ennui.
Christian Science Monitor
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Recent news reports about large holes in the ice and open waters at the Arctic Circle have prompted renewed concerns about the effects of global warming. In measured tones, however, geoscientist Alley reminds us that during the last 100,000 years or so the earth has experienced a wildly varied climate pattern. Using readings of ice cores taken from Greenland, where he participated for several years in the '90s in far-reaching research projects, Alley demonstrates that periods of slow cooling and centuries of cold have been punctuated by periods of sudden warming. In fact, he notes, climatic stability is the exception rather than the rule, and he contends that the unusually warm, stable climate we have experienced for the past 10,000 years is an anomaly. Through his study of the two-mile-long ice cores, Alley reveals a number of elements that contribute to global climatic changes: wind patterns, drifting continents and ocean currents. In lively prose, he illustrates that climate can be stable, but when pushed to change--by either human or natural forces--such change can occur more dramatically and at a faster rate than our industrial society has ever witnessed. Yet Alley is no alarmist in predicting the ways that human activities will affect climate and climatic changes will affect humans. Although not all scientists will agree with Alley's conclusions, his engaging book--a brilliant combination of scientific thriller, memoir and environmental science--provides instructive glimpses into our climatic past and global future that will appeal to readers interested in how our environment affects us. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691102962
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 405,174

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


FAST FORWARD


We live with familiar weather—ski areas are snowy, deserts are parched, rain forests drip. But what if our climate jumped to something totally unexpected? What if you went to bed in slushy Chicago, but woke up with Atlanta's mild weather? Or worse, what if your weather jumped back and forth between that of Chicago and Atlanta: a few years cold, a few years hot? Such crazy climates would not doom humanity, but they could pose the most momentous physical challenge we have ever faced, with widespread crop failures and social disruption.

    Large, rapid, and widespread climate changes were common on Earth for most of the time for which we have good records, but were absent during the few critical millennia when humans developed agriculture and industry. While our ancestors were spearing woolly mammoths and painting cave walls, the climate was wobbling wildly. A few centuries of warm, wet, calm climate alternated with a few centuries of cold, dry, windy weather. The climate jumped between cold and warm not over centuries, but in as little as a single year. Often, conditions "flickered" back and forth between cold and warm for a few decades before settling down.

    The history of this climatic craziness is written in cave formations, ocean and lake sediments, and other places. But the record is probably clearest and most convincing in the ice of Greenland. This incomparable, 110,000-year archive provides year-by-year records of how cold and snowy Greenland was, how strong the storms were that blew dust from Asia and salt from theocean, and even how extensive the wetlands of the world were.

    These records show clearly that Earth's climate normally involves larger, faster, more widespread climate changes than any experienced by industrial or agricultural humans. The 110,000 years of history in Greenland ice cores tell of a 90,000-year slide from a warm time much like ours into the cold, dry, windy conditions of a global ice age, a 10,000-year climb back to warmth, and the 10,000 years of the modern warm period. But the ice cores also show that the ice age came and went in a drunken stagger, punctuated by dozens of abrupt warmings and coolings. The best known of the abrupt climate changes, the Younger Dryas event, nearly returned Earth to ice-age conditions after the cold seemed to be in full retreat. The Younger Dryas ended about 11,500 years ago, when Greenland warmed about 15°F in a decade or less. A little more, slower warming then led to our current 10,000 years of climate stability, agriculture, and industry.

    But smaller and slower climate changes during recent millennia have affected human civilizations in many ways—and these small climate changes seem to have been getting bigger. The "Little Ice Age" cooling that changed settlement patterns in Europe a few centuries ago was tiny compared to the Younger Dryas or the global ice age, but seems to have been the biggest change for thousands of years.

    Records from many places beyond Greenland provide a longer, if fuzzier, view of climate history. Over the last million years, the pattern recorded in cores of Greenland ice has occurred over and over: a long stagger into an ice age, a faster stagger out of the ice age, a few millennia of stability, repeat. The current stable interval is among the longest in the record. Nature is thus likely to end our friendly climate, perhaps quite soon; the Little Ice Age may have been the first unsteady step down that path.

    In our climate, great ocean currents sweep north along the surface of the Atlantic, are warmed by the tropical sun, and release that heat into the winters of northern Europe, allowing Europeans to grow roses farther north than Canadians meet polar bears. The ocean waters that cool in the north Atlantic then sink into the deep ocean and flow south on the first stage of a globe-girdling journey before returning. This "conveyor belt" circulation is delicately balanced—add a little too much fresh water to the north Atlantic from rain or melting icebergs, and the wintertime ocean surface will freeze to produce floating sea ice rather than sinking to make room for more hot water. Much evidence shows that the abrupt coolings and warmings occurred when the conveyor circulation suddenly shut off or turned on again, triggering other changes that spread across Earth.

    Human-induced greenhouse warming appears capable of triggering a conveyor shutdown, by increasing precipitation in the far north and by melting some of the remaining ice sheet on Greenland. Strange as it seems, "global warming" may actually freeze some regions! But, if we slow down the warming, it is just possible that we can avoid an abrupt change and even help stabilize the climate.

    This book is a progress report on abrupt climate changes. We will discuss what has been learned, how this knowledge was gained, and what it might mean to us. The existence of abrupt climate changes casts a very different light on the debate about global warming, so we will examine the greenhouse arguments under this new light. We won't find all of the answers—many are not known yet—but we will frame the questions, and we may gain some clues to our future.


Climate Matters


Climate matters. It mattered to the Vikings, who settled Iceland, explored the New World, and were lured north to Greenland during a period of unusually warm weather a millennium ago. But the warmth did not last, and Viking settlements on Greenland slowly contracted as the climate cooled into the Little Ice Age (see Figure 1.1). The settlers brought farm animals into their houses during the cold winters. Eventually, the settlers ate their farm animals, then their dogs, then disappeared themselves. Climate mattered to Oklahoma farmers during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, when many people headed west as much of their soil headed east on withering winds. Today, with floods and drought, feast and famine, climate matters to many of us much of the time.

    To be fair, climate is not everything. The victims of the Dust Bowl and of the cooling in Greenland may have contributed to their own plights through farming practices that promoted soil erosion, and the Oklahomans were fleeing a great economic depression as well as a change in the weather. While the Vikings froze out of Greenland, their "Eskimo" neighbors, the Thule Inuit, readily survived the cooling.

    Still, the Assyrians, the Maya, the Anasazi, and other ancient civilizations seem to have risen to glory while nature watered their crops, and to have fallen when those crops dried out. Climate certainly mattered to them, and it certainly will matter to us.

    One of the important debates of our time centers on global warming. On one side are those who argue that human-caused changes in climate will make our lives so difficult that millions of us may die, and the fabric of our civilization may be changed forever. On the other side are those who warn that efforts to avoid such a hypothetical fate may cause us to commit economic suicide and trigger the decay that we fear. To resolve this important debate, thousands of people and millions of dollars are currently devoted to the development of an "Operator's Manual" for planet Earth. Land and water, air and ice, soils and plants—if we can figure out how they work, how they are wired together and depend on each other, maybe we can then make wise decisions about global warming, ozone depletion, and other globe-girdling questions.

    This effort is called Earth system science. It is mostly about observing Earth here and now, understanding modern processes, and building models of those processes to use in making predictions. But history also plays a role, in two ways. Just as the records of past peoples help us understand human society, the records of past climates help us learn how the Earth system works. And just as modern political scientists can test their ideas against the history of humans, Earth system scientists can test their models against past climate changes.

    The climate models these scientists test are highly altered, computerized weather forecasting tools. If you decide to learn to forecast the weather, every day offers a new problem, and the next day provides the answer in the back of the book. A weather forecaster in training can practice predicting tomorrow's weather more than a thousand times during a college career.

    Forecasting the climate is not so easy. Consider a hypothetical modeler who informs a U.S. congressional committee that disaster will arrive in a century unless we change our ways. The chair of the congressional committee is unlikely to subscribe to the doctrine of scientific infallibility, and may harrumph that economic policy should not be based on untested computer output. The real winners and losers of such a debate will be the great-grandchildren of the disputants, because modeler and congressperson alike will have been recycled themselves before the forecast can be tested.

    It would be better if the scientist could also tell the congressional committee, "The model that predicts future problems has been tested by simulating many climates of the past, that were wetter and drier, warmer and colder, with greenhouse gases higher and lower than today, and the model successfully reproduced the observations. The model has been used to run simulations that started in the previous warm period and went through the most recent ice age to today, and successfully matched the changes that brought us here." The congressional committee would have a much harder time dismissing such a scientist as a crackpot. But to test our models against the history of climate, we must know that history.

    These questions are far from academic. The Medieval Warm Period that opened Iceland, Greenland, and North America to the Vikings, and the Little Ice Age cooling that helped drive the Vikings from Greenland, caused glaciers to advance across farms in Norway, and allowed Hans Brinker to skate on the canals of Holland, were dwarfed by the Younger Dryas and other dramatic climate jumps that ended the last ice age, as shown in Figure 1.2. Some climate models suggest that such jumps could return, and that human activities may cause—or prevent—such a return. Many of us believe that it would be prudent to understand the large climate jumps of the past. This book is an attempt to advance that understanding in some small way.

    In the next chapter, you will find a brief introduction to climate history, including the central role played by ice cores. I have been fortunate to help in reading ice-core records during three trips to Antarctica, five trips to Greenland, and countless hours in frozen laboratories. Most of us who study ice cores started out by trying to learn how the ice actually records climate, and Part II of this book provides an introduction to the many methods we use. These methods have taught us amazing things about the climate, which are described in Part III. Those results have forced us to learn about oceanic and atmospheric processes far beyond the ice sheets, as described in Part IV. Finally, all this effort gives us some insight to the future, as described in Part V.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii
Part I Setting The Stage
Chapter 1 Fast Forward 3
Chapter 2 Pointers to the Past 11
Part II Reading The Record
Chapter 3 Going to Greenland 17
Chapter 4 The Icy Archives—Ice Sheets and Glaciers 31
Chapter 5 Ice Age through the Ice Age 41
Chapter 6 How Cold of Old? 59
Chapter 7 Dust in the Wind 71
Chapter 8 Tiny Bubbles in the Ice 77
Part III Crazy Climates
Chapter 9 The Saurian Sauna 83
Chapter 10 The Solar System Swing 91
Chapter 11 Dancing to the Orbital Band 99
Chapter 12 What the Worms Turned 109
Part IV Why The Weirdness?
Chapter 13 How Climate Works 131
Chapter 14 A Chaotic Conveyor? 147
Chapter 15 Shoving the System 159
Part V Coming Craziness?
Chapter 16 Fuelish 169
Chapter 17 Down the Road 181
Chapter 18 An Ice-Core View of the Future 185
Appendixes
1. A Cast of Characters 193
2. Usage of Units 199
Sources and Related Information 201
Acknowledgments 223
Index 225

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 3, 2011

    Essential Climate Change Reading

    After WW II the invention of the piston corer revolutionized the study of the Earth by providing often continuous sedimentary records stretching back millions of years. Unlike land-based stratigraphy which characteristically discontinuous and focuses on terminal events that separate strata, the nature of deep-sea cores opened the entire stratigraphic record to the geoscience community. What resulted from this study initially led to a revolution in our understanding of the Pleistocene and, eventually, an extension of that detailed stratigraphy to older and older records stretching back to the Jurassic and beyond. Along the way, geochemistry became geology's most important tool for understanding the way the Earth works. But the marine record is inherently fuzzy - ubiquitous bottom-dwelling organisms stir the top layers of sediment so that the best time resolution attainable is on the order of centuries or millennium. Is the devil in the details?

    Over the past 30 years the search for continuous, high definition records of the Earth's past has shifted back to the land - but this time ice, not rocks. In The Three-Mile Time Machine Richard Alley spends about half of this too-short book on the story of the development of ice-core studies. He then spends another third of the text on a very sketchy attempt to explain rapid climate change, ending with a few very good chapters basic climatology, ocean circulation, the carbon cycle amid some speculation on what the climate future may hold. Two Appendices - one on people the other on units (unnecessary) - and an annotated bibliography complete the text.

    The Three-Mile Time Machine is an outstanding and important contribution to the climate-change literature with a few caveats. The section on ice-core history, while accurate and engaging, could have been much more detailed and could have easily incorporated the material placed in the first Appendix and annotated bibliography. The material on rapid climate change is, similarly, too brief - the text is nowhere near as convincing as the graphs would have it.

    This book is meant for the general public. The general public can grasp climate change in terms of the greenhouse effect - most of them have been inside a greenhouse and (glass versus gas technicalities aside) find some personal link to the concept. The community of climate understanding begins to fade with Milankovitch, but many non-scientists are intrigued when they finally catch on to why the Earth has seasons. But can the climate community grow beyond that? Isotopic fractionation? Down-warping bottom-and-top warming glaciers? Climate scientists need to tread carefully. Geoscience doesn't have the cache that biotechnology has - the biology community can always fall back on "It saves lives, damn it." The point at which the geoscience community will be able to say the same about addressing drastic climate change is, one hopes, some decades or centuries ahead. In the meantime, climate scientists need to lay out the facts clearly and succinctly.

    Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2001

    The best introduction to ice core science

    If all scientists could write about their research as clearly as Richard Alley writes about ice coring, those of us non scientists who make our living writing about science would be out looking for work. Unlike some scientists, he is never stuffy about his work. Cores, which are cylinders of ice drilled out of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and a few other glaciers, offer one of our best records of past climates. Saying this is easy. Explaining how ice cores tell their stories is much more difficult. In The Two-Mile Time Machine, Alley gives a good, overall picture of the Earth's climate history that puts the study of ice cores in context. He then describes enough of the nuts and bolts of ice core science to give us a general picture of how ice cores tell their stories. Often the debate about climate change skims over the reasons that scientists have for their opinions. The Two-Mile Time Machine helps open up the world of climate research for those of us who are not scientists by showing us how researchers gather one kind of climate evidence and how they use this evidence to reach conclusions.

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