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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Research project: How hot will it get? Insights from the climates of the past

Currently Active: 

Since the industrial revolution the concentration of atmospheric CO2 has increased.  This potent greenhouse gas is already causing demonstrable climate change.  Important insights into exactly how the climate will change in the future in response to increased greenhouse emissions can be gained from looking into the past to those time periods that were warmer than today.  The last 56 million years in particular are characterised by a number of warm intervals that were hotter than today.  From reconstructions of how hot these intervals were, how much ice there was and, crucially, by determining the concentration of CO2, we can gain a better idea of what our warm future might be like.

The reconstructed sea-surface temperature anomaly (relative to present) for the Pliocene Warm Period (from Dowsett and Robinson, 2008 doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0206
Sea surface temperature anomaly

Key Questions

  1. What is the sensitivity of the climate system to CO2 forcing? - how hot will it get in the future?
  2. What is the relationship between CO2, ice-volume and sea level? - how high will sea level rise as the major ice sheets melt in the future?
  3. What processes cause natural CO2 and climate change? -why and how did climate and CO2 change in the past?

How do we do it?

  • We use cutting edge analytical techniques to measure the chemical and isotopic composition of the calcium carbonate shells of single celled organisms called foraminifera. 
  • These animals lived in the ancient ocean and their shells now make up deep ocean sediments. Such sediments represent a continuous archive of ancient climate that stretches back continuously for up to 65 million years.
  • From the chemical and isotopic signals locked up in the shells of these animals we can reconstruct ocean pH (and hence atmospheric CO2), ice volume (and hence sea-level) and water temperature (and hence climate). 
(Source: B Marsh)
Clean Labs

Key Contacts

Prof Gavin Foster

Related Research Projects

Descent into the Icehouse

Past and Present Ocean Acidification

Icebergs to icesheets

PhDs and Other Opportunities


Associated research themes

Past Present and Future Environmental Change

Related research groups

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