National Academies Press: OpenBook

Effects of Past Global Change on Life (1995)

Chapter: OVERVIEW

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Suggested Citation:"OVERVIEW." National Research Council. 1995. Effects of Past Global Change on Life. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4762.
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OVERVIEW AND RECOMMENDATIONS 1 Overview and Recommendations OVERVIEW The geologic record provides a unique, long-term history of changes in the global environment and of the impact of these changes on life. From the fact that organisms are intimately related to their environment, we can infer that environmental changes of the past have molded the history of life. The geologic record contains the paleontological evidence that confirms this inference for a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. Study of this record is providing a framework for evaluating the impact of present and future global change on the biosphere—a framework that is urgently needed for the formulation of public policy. What can be expected to happen to biotic communities when climatic zones shift or habitats shrink? As trends of global change progress, what thresholds may trigger sudden shifts between environmental states or cause catastrophic destruction of life? Lessons of the past will serve us well as we confront the future. The geologic record reveals how particular kinds of environmental change have caused species to migrate, become extinct, or give rise to new species. More generally, it shows that many kinds of species and ecosystems are naturally fragile, and therefore transient, whereas other kinds are inherently more stable. Many advances in the understanding of ancient ecosystems are interdisciplinary in nature. Accurate plate tectonic reconstructions are essential for the evaluation of circulation patterns for ancient atmospheres and oceans. Geochemical data help us to understand ancient atmospheric and oceanic compositions, as well as climates. Functional morphology and studies of fossil preservation reveal modes of life of extinct species, and knowledge of the ecological requirements of fossilized organisms complements sedimentological analyses in the reconstruction of ancient environments. Fossil plants are among the most important indicators of ancient terrestrial climates, and studies of microfossil assemblages and stable isotopes are critical for reconstructing the three-dimensional structure of

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What can we expect as global change progresses? Will there be thresholds that trigger sudden shifts in environmental conditions—or that cause catastrophic destruction of life?

Effects of Past Global Change on Life explores what earth scientists are learning about the impact of large-scale environmental changes on ancient life—and how these findings may help us resolve today's environmental controversies.

Leading authorities discuss historical climate trends and what can be learned from the mass extinctions and other critical periods about the rise and fall of plant and animal species in response to global change. The volume develops a picture of how environmental change has closed some evolutionary doors while opening others—including profound effects on the early members of the human family.

An expert panel offers specific recommendations on expanding research and improving investigative tools—and targets historical periods and geological and biological patterns with the most promise of shedding light on future developments.

This readable and informative book will be of special interest to professionals in the earth sciences and the environmental community as well as concerned policymakers.

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