Eternal ice? Polar climate change, yesterday and today!

Apl. Prof. Dr Bernhard Diekmann, Head of the Potsdam Research Unit of the Alfred Wegener Institute and Professor of Quaternary Geology at the University of Potsdam.

Climate Change

History of the Earth

Polar Regions

We are living in a period of climate change, which, among other things, includes the disappearance of the polar ice masses. In the course of Earth’s history, this phenomenon certainly isn’t unheard of. However, what is notable is the current cause, the human climate experiment. A glance back in time shows: the face of our planet was not only dictated by the coming and going of oceans and mountains, or the wandering of continents; it was also constantly shaped by natural climate change.

From the past we can learn what environmental conditions we can expect under the projected climate-change scenarios. 300 million years ago, parts of Africa were buried beneath glaciers, and 150 million years ago, the dinosaurs lived in a world that we would hardly recognise, with ice-free polar regions, and under widespread tropical to subtropical conditions. Today, we live in a world characterised by perpetual ice in the Antarctic, and fluctuating ice extents in the Arctic, North America and Europe. The North German landscape is a legacy of the last glacial 20,000 years ago. When this period began, Scandinavian ice sheets extended as far as Schleswig-Holstein and Brandenburg; the North Sea coast lay north of England. Today’s North Sea Basin was covered with tundra, like what we now see in eastern Siberia.

Today’s Arctic, with ice-covered Greenland, Siberian permafrost and sea ice at the North Pole, is a holdover of that glacial world. But for how much longer? As geoscientists, we provide insights to help answer that question. To do so, our research approaches range from traditional field geology in remote areas and modern ship-based expeditions, to satellite data analysis, as well as investigations in the lab and on the computer.