Contact

Dr. Christian Reick

Global Vegetation Modelling Group Leader
Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg
Phone:+49 40 41173-117

Climate Research . Ecology

Local climate change even without industrial activity

More and more people need more and more food: Cropland in the year 800 (top) and in the year 2000 AD (below). The color bar shows the fraction of total area used for agricultural purposes (gray: 0%, violet: 100%). Zoom Image
More and more people need more and more food: Cropland in the year 800 (top) and in the year 2000 AD (below). The color bar shows the fraction of total area used for agricultural purposes (gray: 0%, violet: 100%). [less]

These figures prove that a net volume of around 28 gigatons of carbon was released into the atmosphere as a result of agricultural development in the pre-industrial period of the last millennium. These emissions remained very small for hundreds of years, and it was only during the period between the 16th and 18th centuries that they affected the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide beyond a level that could be explained by natural climate variations alone. As a result, it would appear that humans did not increase the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere until a relatively late point in time – albeit still prior to the advent of industrialization. However, this increase in carbon dioxide was too small to perceptibly alter the temperature at the global level.

At the regional level, in contrast, humans already influenced the climate prior to industrialization. Simulations show that, due to the changes in the albedo of the land surface through land use, mankind altered the energy balance in some regions as early as a thousand years ago. In Europe, India and China, in particular, the amount of absorbed solar radiation decreased by around two watts per square meter. A change of this magnitude at the regional level is just as large as the current global greenhouse effect; however, it has the opposite impact, as it causes cooling rather than warming.

Between 800 and 1850, the agriculturally important regions lost carbon to the atmosphere (beige to dark red) while many natural areas tended to absorb carbon as a consequence of the agricultural losses (light blue to dark blue). Scale in billion tons of carbon (GtC) per grid cell of the climate model. Zoom Image
Between 800 and 1850, the agriculturally important regions lost carbon to the atmosphere (beige to dark red) while many natural areas tended to absorb carbon as a consequence of the agricultural losses (light blue to dark blue). Scale in billion tons of carbon (GtC) per grid cell of the climate model. [less]

Even historical events can leave their traces on the climate through such biogeophysical effects. For example, there was a clear reversal of the increasing human influence on Europe’s energy balance in the 14th century. This change was brought about by the bubonic plague, which claimed the lives of around one third of the population and in the wake of which large expanses of agricultural land were temporarily abandoned. The Mongol invasion of China in the 13th century and the diseases spread among the high cultures of the Americas by the invasion of the Europeans had similar consequences.

 

 
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