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Climate Change: The Whole Story

Take a walk through geologic history and you'll see climate change more than what callers to a radio show are seeing in their backyards.

I can look out my home office window and see the 10-foot tall snow drifts back in the shelterbelt that surrounds our farmstead near Fargo, N.D.

There’s two feet of snow out on the level in the yard between the house and barn.

It’s clear and sunny, but cold and windy. Blow ice on the Interstate 29 is keeping me from going to a precision farming conference in Sioux Falls, S.D.

It’s March, but winter won’t let go. We won’t be planting in April this year.

On National Public Radio, the host asks, “What signs of climate change are you seeing in your backyards? How has the climate changed in your lifetime?"

I wish the author of the book I am reading -- “The Whole Story of Climate” -- would call in and scold her. E. Kirsten “Rock Doc” Peters, a geology instructor at Washington State University, would probably say the callers are not seeing climate change. They are noticing the weather.

Climate change is something much, much bigger, says Peters, who writes about what scientists know about the earth’s climate over the past 1.8 billion years based on the geologic record (glaciers, ice core, soils, etc.).

Peters lays out the “whole story of climate” this way:

Imagine the history of earth’s climate over the past 1.8 billion years as an empty 100-yard football field.

Stand at one goal line and start walking toward the opposite end zone.

The first 5 yards – representing about 100,000 years – is a cold period when glaciers covered the earth. The next 1 ½ yards is a warm period, something like we have now.

The alternating cold and warm pattern repeats as you walk down the field. About five yards of ice-age cold followed by 1 ½ yards of warmth,

Some scientists suspect the alternating pattern is set off by a wobble in the tilt of the earth’s axis toward and away from the sun and variations in the earth’s egg shaped orbit around the sun. Every 11,500 years, the first day of winter occurs when the earth is farthest from the sun on its elliptical path around the sun, resulting in much colder winters.

When you are just one half yard from the opposite goal line (which represents present day) an ice age ends and a warm period begins -- right on schedule, according to the pattern.

At this point in history, we humans changed our way of living. Instead hunting and gathering our food, we started to deliberately plant and tend crops. We domesticated animals. We began to make pots, weave cloth and draw pictures on cave walls.

A little further on, just a fraction of an inch from the goal line is our recorded weather history. Perhaps this is what most people, like those calling Minnesota Public Radio, believe is global warming.

Somewhere beyond the goal line, maybe another half yard, will likely be the start of another cold spell, another ice age -- a real climate change.

I just hope the weather turns warmer soon, sometime yet in March.

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