The scaling law of climate change and its relevance to assessing (palaeo)biological responses

Kießling W, Eichenseer K (2014)

Publication Type: Conference contribution, Abstract of lecture

Publication year: 2014

Conference Proceedings Title: EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts

Event location: Vienna AT



It is often argued that current rates of climate change are unprecedented in the geological past. At the same time,the magnitudes of change were often much greater in deep time than they are in history. The most severe globalwarming in the Phanerozoic, with dramatic consequences for life, probably occurred across the Permian-Triassic (P-T) boundary when an increase of tropical water temperatures of 15 ̊C has been observed to occur over a timespan 0.8 myr (Sun et al. 2012), whereas global ocean warming over the last 50 years was 0.35 ̊C (Burrows et al. 2011). When transforming these data into rates of change the P-T rate was roughly 370 times smaller than the currentrate. We argue that the smaller rates of change inferred from geological proxy records are due to a scaling effect,that is, rates of climate change generally decrease with timespan of observation.

We compiled from the published literature data on measured or inferred temperature changes and the timespansover which these changes were assessed. Our compilation currently comprises 120 values and covers timespansfrom 20 to 107years. A log-log plot of timespan versus rate of temperature change depicts a highly significantcorrelation (r2= 0.95) of a power-law relationship with an exponent of -0.87. Warming trends show a slightlylower exponent (-0.84) than cooling trends (-0.89) but the explained variance is better for the scaling of warmingtrends. Importantly, the scaled warming trend across the P-T boundary is higher than the current rates of warming.

Similar scaling effects are well explored for sediment accumulation rates (Sadler 1981) and evolutionary rates(Gingerich 1993). These have been interpreted as being due to breaks in sedimentation and periods of stasis ortransient reversals, respectively. In case of climate change, transient reversals in general trends are the most likelyexplanation for the scaling relationship. Even relatively rapid intervals of warming, such as the Pleistocene inter-glacials, are not monotonic, but punctuated by short-term cooling intervals.

The fossil record tells us that biodiversity responded dramatically to ancient intervals of climate warming. We cannow see that the apparently slower rates of change in some mass extinctions (Permian-Triassic, Triassic-Jurassic)were greater than today when the scaling law is considered. This reassures us that studying deep time patterns oforganismic response to climate change is a worthwhile endeavor that is relevant for predicting the future.


Burrows, M. T., Schoeman, D. S., Buckley, L. B., Moore, P., Poloczanska, E. S., Brander, K. M., Brown, C., Bruno,J. F., Duarte, C. M., Halpern, B. S., Holding, J., Kappel, C. V.,

Kiessling, W., O’Connor, M. I., Pandolfi, J. M.,Parmesan, C., Schwing, F. B., Sydeman, W. J., and Richardson, A. J.: The pace of shifting climate in marine andterrestrial ecosystems, Science, 334, 652-655, 2011.

Gingerich, P. D.: Quantification and comparison of evolutionary rates, American Journal of Science, 293A, 453-478, 1993.

Sadler, P. M.: Sediment accumulation rates and the completeness of stratigraphic sections, Journal of Geology, 89,569-584, 1981.

Sun, Y., Joachimski, M. M., Wignall, P. B., Yan, C., Chen, Y., Jiang, H., Wang, L., and Lai, X.: Lethally hottemperatures during the Early Triassic greenhouse, Science, 338, 366-370, 2012.

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How to cite


Kießling, W., & Eichenseer, K. (2014). The scaling law of climate change and its relevance to assessing (palaeo)biological responses. Paper presentation, Vienna, AT.


Kießling, Wolfgang, and Kilian Eichenseer. "The scaling law of climate change and its relevance to assessing (palaeo)biological responses." Presented at EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts, Vienna 2014.

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