Paleoclimatologists James Zachos and Ellen Thomas have been awarded this Wednesday with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for discovering a
from 56 million years ago that makes it possible to predict the impacts of current global warming.
The jury has valued the "momentous contribution" to the discovery of the so-called Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), an "important natural event in the fossil record that offers a powerful analogy of anthropogenic climate change," according to a statement from the BBVA Foundation.
Upon learning of the ruling, Zachos has indicated that the PETM is considered "the best geological analogy of current climate change."
The scientist has pointed out that the discovery has been a key natural experiment to validate and delimit the models that are used today to predict the future evolution of the climate.
Zachos, a scientist at the University of California at Santa Cruz (United States), and Thomas, from Yale University and Wesleyan University (also in the USA), identified an anomalous episode in the history of the planet in the 1990s, in in which massive emissions of carbon dioxide (CO₂) —one of the main causes of the current warming of the planet— were produced due to natural causes.
The phenomenon caused a rise in global temperature of between 5 and 6º C. The episode acidified the oceans and triggered one of the largest extinctions of deep marine organisms in the history of the planet.
The findings on the so-called Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which occurred 56 million years ago, have served to verify theoretical models of global warming and demonstrate "the potential implications of a serious disturbance" in the planet's climate, such as the that is currently taking place due to human activity.
The discovery of the PETM took place during an ocean drilling expedition in Antarctica in which Thomas participated.
He discovered "considerable changes in the organisms that lived on the bottom of the sea."
Although this extinction was already documented in some scientific articles, Thomas was the first person to analyze it in detail and, above all, to attribute its origin to a change on a global scale on the border between the Paleocene and the Eocene.
The definitive confirmation of the event happened a little later thanks to the investigations of Zachos, who analyzed terrestrial sediments obtained in Wyoming (USA).
“Suddenly, all the pieces began to fit together like a puzzle, and they were also consistent with the theory of the greenhouse effect”, highlighted the winner.
According to the award-winning paleoclimatologist, the impact of that event in the past "should serve as a warning to reduce current greenhouse gas emissions and thus avoid the worst scenarios of global warming, such as rising sea levels, floods, droughts, extreme climatic episodes and loss of biodiversity”.
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