Scientist: Fossil Plants Help Tell Planet's Past, Present and Future

Mar 18, 2014

Scientist Scott Wing talks about what plant fossils can tell about climate change.
Scientist Scott Wing talks about what plant fossils can tell about climate change.
Credit Ira Block

Fossils tell the story of the world’s past and the next Frontiers of Science lecture will explore what the fossils also say about current times and the future.

Scientist Scott Wing is speaking at the Leonardo on Wednesday. Normally when he visits the Mountain West, he’s digging up the stony remnants of plants from 56 million years ago. When those plants were alive, the oceans and land released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere extraordinarily fast. Wing regards the plant fossils like a movie that helps explain the rapid climate change the earth is going through now.

“When that carbon was released,” he says, “it resulted in global warming of somewhere between 8 and 14 degrees Fahrenheit and a lot of changes in the chemistry of the ocean and where plants and animals live, a lot of very rapid evolution in some species and some extinction as well.”

Wing is a research scientist and curator of fossil plants at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He’s used the Basin West as his laboratory for studying the global warming event called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Higher temperatures and lower rainfall transformed vegetation worldwide. What used to look like Florida’s lush forests became desert forests, like Mexico’s. Wing says the cooler climate didn’t come back for more than 150,000 years.

“This is one of the really important lessons from the event: is that when you make big changes they don’t go away very quickly, there’s no magic bullet,” says Wing. “You can’t turn around and say, ‘oh, gee, it’s really too bad that we put a whole bunch of carbon in the atmosphere; let’s take it out,’ because the system doesn’t work that way.”

Wing’s lecture is free and begins at 6 p.m.