What Does Past Global Warming Teach Us?

Free public lecture at UC Riverside on April 23 will discuss an event 56 million years ago that best mirrors present-day warming

Photo shows Scott Wing

Scott L. Wing is Curator of Fossil Plants in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo credit: National Museum of Natural History.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A biologist who uses fossil plants to reconstruct past climates and local environments will give a free public lecture on Wednesday, April 23, at the University of California, Riverside.

The talk by Scott L. Wing, curator of fossil plants in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History (part of the Smithsonian Institution), is titled “Global Warming 56 Million Years Ago: What It Means for Us.”

The hourlong talk will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Conference Rooms D and E, UCR Extension Center (UNEX), 1200 University Ave., Riverside. The lecture is hosted by the university’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the new Environmental Dynamics and GeoEcology (EDGE) Institute.

Parking at UNEX is free for lecture attendees.

“I am a biologist interested in evolution and ecology,” Wing said. “I study fossils because they provide a long-term record of evolutionary, ecological, and environmental change.”

Human emissions of greenhouse gases are altering environments and climate globally and will continue to do so for many thousands of years into the future. The past event that best mirrors present-day warming occurred 56 million years ago and is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM.  The PETM began with a geologically sudden release of an amount of carbon roughly similar to that in modern fossil fuel reserves, causing global warming of 4-8 degrees Celsius.

“I will talk about the PETM, explain what we know about its causes, and what we have learned about its effects on ecosystems in North America and elsewhere — effects that included rapid extirpation of local populations of plants, colonization of northern regions by tropical species, and, interestingly, rapid evolution,” Wing said. “The lessons of deep time have ever more relevance as we rapidly mold our planet in the ongoing geological epoch some call the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans.”

Humans are adding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which will change the global climate.  Climatologists estimate the rate and magnitude of future climate change using general circulation models (GCMs). Wing’s paleoclimate reconstructions based on fossil plants are important to climatologists and, to the extent that they reveal GCM strengths and weaknesses, to policymakers and the public as well.

“How accurate are GCMs? Strictly, their predictions can only be tested by waiting to see how climate changes in the decades and centuries ahead, but some idea of their accuracy can be gained by comparing ‘postdictions’ for past times against climate reconstructions for those past times based on fossil plants,” Wing said.

He studies the composition and diversity of flora through time as both respond to changing conditions. His research, based largely on field work and collections, has focused on the Cretaceous and early Cenozoic, a period of globally warm climate when flowering plants were emerging as the dominant form of terrestrial life.

Wing collects data on fossil morphology and taxonomy and analyzes them through statistical characterization of trends in morphology, composition, or diversity of floras, and comparison of floral change with indicators of environmental change. He makes climatic interpretations based on fossil plants for comparison with paleoclimatic estimates derived from computer simulations.

He has a long-running project examining climatic and floral change across the Paleocene/Eocene boundary, a time of global climatic warming. The project has been directed at quantifying temperature and precipitation change and also change in floral composition and diversity over about 5 million years spanning the boundary. His field work has been in western North America, Pakistan, and Argentina.

In a second long-term project he studies the abundance and diversity of angiosperms in the Late Cretaceous. Angiosperms are the youngest major group of terrestrial organisms, prompting the question: how did they achieve such high diversity and abundance over a relatively brief geological interval (~100 – 60 million years ago)?

Wing is a member of a large team of paleobotanists who are adding data on fossil plant assemblages to a Web-accessible database maintained at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. In the long run this database will allow scientists to better quantify changes in the diversity and composition of terrestrial floras across the whole history of life on land.

Educated at Yale University, Wing received his bachelor of science degree in 1976 and his doctorate in 1981.

For more information about his talk, please call (951) 827-3182 or email jennifer.reising@ucr.edu.

Future talk

On May 7, Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will give a talk at UCR titled “Climate Change and the Ocean.”


Global climate and environmental change, and the associated degradation of ecosystems, together form the biggest issue facing society today. UCR’s EDGE Institute aims to examine life in this changing environment, focusing on carbon (molecules to organisms), nutrients, and water at various temporal and spatial scales. It brings together UCR scientists from the biological, chemical, and physical sciences to examine particular questions or issues.

Directing the institute will be the holder of the Wilbur W. Mayhew Chair, recently endowed by anonymous donors who are passionate about the ecology of the southwest. Their $1.5 million gift honors Mayhew, a pioneering ecologist, UCR faculty member and co-founder of the UC Natural Reserves System. His work resulted in the preservation of key natural habitats throughout California for future generations of scientists and students. These habitats are invaluable today as laboratories of the natural world.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-6050
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Additional Contacts

Jennifer Reising
Tel: (951) 827-3182
E-mail: jennifer.reising@ucr.edu

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