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Source article

The Holocene

Published By

Dr. Dick van der Wateren


Greenhouse Gases, Isotopes, Holocene, Archaeology

Follow @COSISnews on Twitter

Pre-industrial increase in greenhouse gases due to humans?

11.02.2011, Age: 3908 days

New article in The Holocene: "Can natural or anthropogenic explanations of late-Holocene CO2 and CH4 increases be falsified?" by Ruddiman, Kutzbach and Vavrus.

Ruddiman, Kutzbach and Vavrus synthesize a combination of archaeological and isotope data to answer the question whether humans caused the steady increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases during the Holocene.


Concentrations of CO2 and CH4 in the atmosphere rose slowly during the millennia prior to the industrial era. Opposing explanations for these increases have invoked natural and anthropogenic sources. Here we revisit this argument using new evidence to see whether either explanation can be falsified (disproven, in the sense proposed by German philosopher Karl Popper). Two lines of evidence suggest that natural explanations for the CH4 increase are falsified: (1) the absence of any sustained methane increase early in seven interglaciations prior to the Holocene; and (2) weakening emissions during the last 5000 years from the two largest global sources of CH4– north tropical and boreal wetlands. Consistent with this interpretation, a new synthesis of archeological data from southern Asia reported in this issue indicates an exponential increase in CH4 emissions from expanding rice irrigation during the last 5000 years. Neither the anthropogenic nor the natural explanations for the CO2 increase can at this point be falsified. Previous studies that rejected the early anthropogenic hypothesis based on the small size of early farming populations ignored a rich array of archeological and historical evidence showing that early farmers used much more land per capita than those in the centuries just before the industrial era. Previous interpretations of very small terrestrial (anthropogenic and other) carbon emissions during the last 7000 years based on the δ13CO2 record failed to incorporate credible estimates of very large carbon burial in boreal peat lands during the late Holocene. Allowance for larger burial in peat deposits requires much greater emissions of anthropogenic carbon to balance the δ13CO2 budget. The prevalence of downward CO2 trends during equivalent intervals early in previous interglaciations poses a major problem for natural explanations of the late-Holocene CO2increase.

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