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Global warming begets more warming, new paleoclimate study finds

It is increasingly clear that the prolonged drought conditions, record-breaking heat, sustained wildfires, and frequent, more extreme storms experienced in recent years are a direct result of rising global temperatures brought on by humans' addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And a new MIT study on extreme climate events in Earth's ancient history suggests that today's planet may become more volatile as it continues to warm.

The study, appearing today in Science Advances, examines the paleoclimate record of the last 66 million years, during the Cenozoic era, which began shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs. The scientists found that during this period, fluctuations in the Earth's climate experienced a surprising "warming bias." In other words, there were far more warming events -- periods of prolonged global warming, lasting thousands to tens of thousands of years -- than cooling events. What's more, warming events tended to be more extreme, with greater shifts in temperature, than cooling events.

The researchers say a possible explanation for this warming bias may lie in a "multiplier effect," whereby a modest degree of warming -- for instance from volcanoes releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- naturally speeds up certain biological and chemical processes that enhance these fluctuations, leading, on average, to still more warming.

Interestingly, the team observed that this warming bias disappeared about 5 million years ago, around the time when ice sheets started forming in the Northern Hemisphere. It's unclear what effect the ice has had on the Earth's response to climate shifts. But as today's Arctic ice recedes, the new study suggests that a multiplier effect may kick back in, and the result may be a further amplification of human-induced global warming.

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