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The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate

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Winner of the 2009 Walter P. Kistler Award, The Foundation For the Future
One of The Australian's Best Books of 2009
Selected to appear on ClimateUnited's Booklist of Top Books on Climate Change

Series: Science Essentials (Princeton UP)

By: David Archer (Author)

192 pages, 21 b/w illustrations

Princeton University Press

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The Long Thaw

If you think that global warming means slightly hotter weather and a modest...

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Paperback | Sep 2010 | #187002 | ISBN-13: 9780691148113
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Hardback | Jan 2009 | #176252 | ISBN-13: 9780691136547
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About this book

If you think that global warming means slightly hotter weather and a modest rise in sea levels that will persist only so long as fossil fuels hold out (or until we decide to stop burning them), think again. In The Long Thaw, David Archer, one of the world's leading climatologists, predicts that if we continue to emit carbon dioxide we may eventually cancel the next ice age and raise the oceans by 50 meters. By comparing the global warming forecast for the next century to natural climate changes of the distant past, and then looking into the future far beyond the usual scientific and political horizon of the year 2100, Archer reveals the hard truths of the long-term climate forecast.

Archer shows how just a few centuries of fossil-fuel use will cause not only a climate storm that will last a few hundred years, but dramatic climate changes that will last thousands. Carbon dioxide emitted today will be a problem for millennia. For the first time, humans have become major players in shaping the long-term climate. In fact, a planetwide thaw driven by humans has already begun. But despite the seriousness of the situation, Archer argues that it is still not too late to avert dangerous climate change – if humans can find a way to cooperate as never before.

Revealing why carbon dioxide may be an even worse gamble in the long run than in the short, this compelling and critically important book brings the best long-term climate science to a general audience for the first time.

"Worried about warming but confused about carbon? Try [The Long Thaw], which tells you nearly everything you need to know with down-to-earth clarity and brevity."
– Evan Hadingham, PBS's NOVA blog

"Archer [...] presents the dire and long-lasting consequences of our fossil-fuel dependency but concludes that it's not too late for us to go a different, better way."
– Avital Binshtock, Sierra Club Blog

"A beautifully written primer on why climate change matters hugely for our future – on all time scales."
– Fred Pearce, New Scientist

"Archer has perfectly pitched answers to the most basic questions about global warming while providing a sound basis for understanding the complex issues frequently misrepresented by global warming skeptics. With a breezy, conversational style, he breaks complex concepts into everyday analogies. Divided into three parts – the Present, the Past and the Future – Archer provides a complete picture of climate change now, in the past, and what we can expect in years and centuries to come. His models, though conservative, imply that humans won't survive the environmental consequences of severe warming over the next thousand years. While Archer is neither grim nor pessimistic, he is forthright about what's at stake, and what must do to avert catastrophe."
Publishers Weekly

"It is comprehensive, well written and includes numerous useful vignettes from climate history. Archer leads the reader to a simple yet accurate picture of climate changes, ranging from geological time scales to current warming, ice ages and prospects for the future."
– Susan Solomon, Nature

"The Long Thaw is written for anyone who wishes to know what cutting-edge science tells us about the modern issue of global warming and its effects on the pathways of atmospheric chemistry, as well as global and regional temperatures, rainfall, sea level, Arctic sea-ice coverage, melting of the continental ice sheets, cyclonic storm frequency and intensity and ocean acidification. This book will also appeal to scientists who want a clear and unbiased picture of the global-warming problem and how it may progress in the future. It encapsulates Archer's own efforts in the field of climate research, which I found invaluable."
– Fred T. Mackenzie, Nature Geoscience

"The power of Archer's book is to show that such [climate] changes, which we can bring about through just a few centuries of partying on carbon, can only be matched by the earth itself over vastly longer periods [...] It's the kind of perspective we need in order to realize how insane we're being."
– Chris Mooney, American Prospect

"Global climate change is the subject of thousands of books; this short volume is distinctive in multiple ways. Archer is a geophysicist (and a look-alike – except for stubble – for late British actor David Niven), whose scientific background lets him place climate change in the context of its variations in geological history. He points out that the Earth's orbital cycles had poised it to enter a new ice age when human influences began to override natural forces."
– F.T. Manheim, Choice

"If you think global warming is going to stop in its tracks as soon as our fossil fuel fix runs its course, think again. Intensifying hurricanes, mega-droughts, and the mass extinction of species are just the beginning, says leading climatologist David Archer, renowned in part for his work with the respected blog RealClimate. Though we still have time to avert the worst of climate change, he says, the ramifications of our carbon spewing (think a ten-foot rise in ocean levels) will last well beyond even our grandchildren's years. A good storyteller, Archer walks us through the history of climate change, starting in the 1800s, when the term 'greenhouse effect' first made its way into scientific parlance. Tempering techie speak with accessible analogies, Archer manages in the James Hansen-approved volume to speak to scientists and laymen alike."

"Notice to climate change deniers: I don't want to hear another word about the Little Ice Age, cosmic rays of the Palaeocene Eocene thermal maximum event 55 million years ago until you've read David Archer's little book. He's a geophysical scientist at the University of Chicago and he knows his stuff. He sets out the latest scientific understanding of climate change through geological time, human time, and beyond. It's the clearest introduction I've seen yet to the complexity of the planet's climate system and how a certain bipedal species may know it gally wonk."
– Leigh Dayton, The Australian

"The great appeal of this short book lies in Archer's ability to find easily comprehensible analogies and his no-nonsense prose [...] This is a true rarity. A book about climate change written by an expert everyone can understand."
Sydney Morning Herald, "Pick of the Week"

"David Archer has written a highly engaging and accessible review of the scientific bases for anthropogenic global warming and the dilemmas of what, as a global community, we should do next. The text is written for a general audience, reflecting the aims of the Science Essentials series of which it is a part, namely, to bring the findings of cutting-edge scientific research to the public."
– Tim Denham, Journal of Archaeological Science

"If you have time in your busy schedule to read only one book on climate change and climate science basics, this would be a good choice. Archer, an oceanographer and University of Chicago geosciences professor, has written a conversational, engaging, and short (remember, you're busy) book."
Natural Hazards Observer

"David Archer's The Long Thaw [...] tells you nearly everything you need to know with down-to-earth clarity and brevity [...] [R]eading The Long Thaw is sobering and enlightening rather than depressing. It's packed with informative, accessible background on past climate cycles and why they are relevant to assessing today's warming."
– Evan Hadingham, Inside NOVA

"[T]he ideas expounded in the book are of great importance to the debate on climate change and deserve to be more widely appreciated. Let us hope that Archer's message becomes widely understood and acted upon before we find that we have already committed ourselves to damaging (and potentially irreversible) climate change."
– John King, Journal of Polar Record

"In this short book, David Archer gives us the latest on climate change research, and skillfully tells the climate story that he helped to discover: generations beyond our grandchildren's grandchildren will inherit atmospheric changes and an altered climate as a result of our current decisions about fossil-fuel burning. Not only are massive climate changes coming if we humans continue on our current path, but many of these changes will last for millennia. To make predictions about the future, we rely on research into the deep past, and Archer is at the forefront of this field: paleoclimatology. This is the book for anyone who wishes to really understand what cutting-edge science tells us about the effects we are having, and will have, on our future climate."
– Richard B. Alley, Pennsylvania State University

"This is the best book about carbon dioxide and climate change that I have read. David Archer knows what he is talking about."
– James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

"Books on climate change tend to focus on what is expected to happen this century, which will certainly be large, but they often neglect the even larger changes expected to take place over many centuries. The Long Thaw looks at climate effects beyond the twenty-first century, and its focus on the long-term carbon cycle, rather than just climate change, is unique."
– Jeffrey T. Kiehl, National Center for Atmospheric Research

"A great book. What sets it apart is that it expands the discussion of the impacts of global warming beyond the next century and convincingly describes the effects that are projected for the next few thousand years. What also sets it apart is how deeply it takes general readers into the scientific issues of global warming by using straightforward explanations of often complex ideas."
– Peter J. Fawcett, University of New Mexico


Acknowledgments xi
Prologue. Global Warming in Geologic Time 1
An overview of the thrust of the book: human-induced climate change in the context of geologic time, in the past and in the future.

Chapter 1. The Greenhouse Effect 15
Fourier and greenhouse theory Early CO2 measurements Arrhenius and the forecast. Climate science since then.
Chapter 2: We've Seen It with Our Own Eyes. 30
Testing the forecast Impacts already.
Chapter 3: Forecast of the Century. 45
A century-timescale climate spike Temperature, rainfall, sea level, and storms

Chapter 4: Millennial Climate Cycles. 57
Abrupt climate transitions, and climate cycles on millennial timescales. The Little Ice Age and the Medieval Optimum climates
Chapter 5: Glacial Climate Cycles 69
History of their discovery Ice flows and melts in quirky ways. Orbital forcing and CO2 forcing 69
Chapter 6: Geologic Climate Cycles. 78
Our ice age is unusual. The Earth is breathing.
Chapter 7: The Present in the Bosom of the Past. 91
Climate change so far and in the coming century, compared with deglaciation, abrupt climate change, the Eocene hothouse, the Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum event, and the K/T boundary.

Chapter 8: The Fate of Fossil Fuel CO2 Reservoirs of carbon, breathing 101
New carbon from fossil fuels equilibrates with the ocean and the land.
Chapter 9: Acidifying the Ocean. 114
CO2 is an acid CaCO3 is a base. Neutralization takes millennia. CO2 remains higher than natural for hundreds of millennia
Chapter 10: Carbon Cycle Feedbacks. 125
The short-term prognosis. The long-term prognosis.
Chapter 11: Sea Level in the Deep Future. 137
If the past is the key to the future, we have the capacity to raise sea level by 50 meters, eventually.
Chapter 12: Orbits, CO2 , and the Next Ice Age. 149
Interplay between orbital and CO2 climate forcings. The next ice age is about to be canceled.

Epilogue: Carbon Economics and Ethics. 158
What the options are and how we decide.

Further Reading 175
Index 179

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David Archer is professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, the author of Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, and a frequent contributor to the Weblog RealClimate.

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