Inuit Johnny Issaluk holds a recent photo of a South Carolina swamp. That’s what his home, near the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island, would have looked like 56 million years ago, when summer water temperatures at the North Pole hit 74°F.
Not the same planetary fever exactly; it was a different world the last time, around 56 million years ago. The Atlantic Ocean had not fully opened, and animals, including perhaps our primate ancestors, could walk from Asia through Europe and across Greenland to North America. They wouldn't have encountered a speck of ice; even before the events we're talking about, Earth was already much warmer than it is today. But as the Paleocene epoch gave way to the Eocene, it was about to get much warmer still—rapidly, radically warmer.
The cause was a massive and geologically sudden release of carbon. Just how much carbon was injected into the atmosphere during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, as scientists now call the fever period, is uncertain. But they estimate it was roughly the amount that would be injected today if human beings burned through all the Earth's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas. The PETM lasted more than 150,000 years, until the excess carbon was reabsorbed. It brought on drought, floods, insect plagues, and a few extinctions. Life on Earth survived—indeed, it prospered—but it was drastically different. Today the evolutionary consequences of that distant carbon spike are all around us; in fact they include us. Now we ourselves are repeating the experiment.
The PETM "is a model for what we're staring at—a model for what we're doing by playing with the atmosphere," says Philip Gingerich, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Michigan. "It's the idea of triggering something that runs away from you and takes a hundred thousand years to reequilibrate."