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Environ Pollut. 1994;83(1-2):3-21.

Climate of the earth: an overview.

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  • 1Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Division of Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.


Climate has varied over a large range in the recent history of the Earth, with extremes represented by equable environments of the Cretaceous and Eocene and the comparatively frigid conditions of the ice ages that punctuated the past few million years. It is suggested that major shifts in climate are controlled largely by variations in CO(2) with related fluctuations in modes of ocean circulation. Changes in climate can proceed rapidly, on time scales as short as centuries or even decades, as indicated by data for the Younger Dryas (a period of globally cold conditions interrupting recovery of the Earth from the last ice age) and the Little Ice Age (a cold snap extending from about 1250 to about 1850 ad). Rapid fluctuations in climate appear to be linked to changes in production of deep water in the North Atlantic, possibly also to variations in circulation of intermediate waters in the Pacific. Mechanisms are discussed whereby changes in ocean circulation can result in shifts of climate on a global scale. A 10 000 year record of climate from Norway is used to provide context for a discussion of possible changes in climate today arising as a result of the build-up of industrially related greenhouse gases. Brief, somewhat pessimistic, comments are offered concerning the prospects for meaningful near-term predictions of the response of climate to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases. Studies of past climates, by drawing attention to important processes and feedbacks, can play a valuable role in the development of credible models for the future.

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