Perhaps 2°C doesn’t sound like much, but if you look through history, seemingly small temperature changes have had huge effects on the planet and people.
Emphasise the importance of an understanding of ecosystem stability and climate change with students in years 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10 studing Earth and Space Sciences or Biological Sciences.
Word Count: 900
But 2°C temperature changes doesn’t really sound like much. Wouldn’t it just mean a few more days of summer barbeques?
While 2℃ might seem negligible, the peak of the last ice age was characterised by a 2-4 ℃ drop in global temperatures. This shows just how great an effect this seemingly small change in temperature can have on Earth.
The last ice age
The last ice age occurred primarily as a result of changes in Earth’s orbit, and relationship to the Sun. Coolest conditions peaked 21,000 years ago. Reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide and sea surface temperatures reinforced the cooling trend.
Globally, the most significant impact of the ice age was the formation of massive ice sheets at the poles. Ice sheets up to 4km thick blanketed much of northern Europe, Canada, northern America and northern Russia.
Today, these ice caps would displace around 250 million people and bury cities such as Detroit, Manchester, Vancouver, Hamburg, and Helsinki.
As water turned to ice, the sea-level dropped to 125 metres lower than today, exposing vast areas of land. This enlarged continent – 20% larger than Australia today – is known as “Sahul”.
In Australia, many of our major cities would have found themselves inland. Northern Australia joined to Papua New Guinea, Darwin harbour was 300km from the coast and Melburnians could have walked to northern Tasmania.
The Gulf of Carpentaria became a large, salty inland lake, largely unused by humans.
With less rainfall, the arid zone was greatly expanded. Today’s semi-arid zones, many of which form an integral part of our agricultural belt, would have turned to desert.
The human response to 2°C temperature changes
Archaeological evidence suggests two main responses from Indigenous people in the last ice age.
Second, populations dramatically declined, perhaps by as much as 60%, as the availability of food and water decreased. This means some of the most adaptable people on the planet could not maintain their population in the face of climate change.
Today that would equate to the loss of 15 million people, or the combined populations of the largest six cities in the country (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Adelaide).
What fate awaits us?
Current projections, of course, suggest an increase rather than a decrease in planetary temperatures of 2˚C or more. However, in some respects, conditions in Australia later this century are likely to be similar to the last ice age, albeit via different climatic mechanisms.
Predictions suggest more frequent occurrence of hot days, as well as hotter days, and increasing variability in rainfall, with heavier falls when they occur. Cyclones may also become more intense across the top end, while increasing evaporation inland will likely see arid zones expand. The result may be similar to the last ice age, with increasing dry spells, especially inland.
Changing sea-levels (rising rather than falling) will similarly impact populations along the coastal fringe. Predictions of sea-level rise over the next century range from 19-75cm. This website – coastal risk – shows how sea-level rise will affect various parts of Australia. With 50% of our population within 7km of the coast and increasing, sea level changes associated with a global 2˚C warming will impact most Australians.
How should we respond?
People who survived the last ice age were mobile and well-adapted to arid conditions. Today’s sedentary society, dependent on optimised food production systems, arguably faces a greater challenge.
Our agricultural systems produce higher yields than the earlier food producing systems used by Aboriginal people, but are much more vulnerable to disruption. This is because they are limited in geographic spread (such as the Murray-Darling Basin and Western Australian wheat belt), and located where the impact of climate change will hit hardest.
We should do our utmost to ensure governments meet their commitments to the Paris climate agreement and reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. But it would also be prudent for researchers and policymakers to identify modern day refuges in Australia, and plan the long-term sustainability of these regions in the event climate disruption cannot be reversed.
Alan N Williams, Associate Director/National Technical Leader-Aboriginal Heritage, EMM Consulting Pty Ltd, UNSW; Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, Director of the Changing Earth Research Centre and the Chronos 14Carbon-Cycle Facility at UNSW, and Node Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW; Haidee Cadd, Research associate, UNSW; James Shulmeister, Professor, University of Canterbury; Michael Bird, JCU Distinguished Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University, and Zoë Thomas, ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW
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