How do we know what greenhouse gas and temperature levels were in the distant past?

Ice cores are scientists’ best source for historical climate data. Every winter, some snow coating Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets is left behind and compressed into a layer of ice. By extracting cylinders of ice from sheets thousands of meters thick, scientists can analyze dust, ash, pollen and bubbles of atmospheric gas trapped inside. The deepest discovered ice cores are an estimated 800,000 years old. The particles trapped inside give scientists clues about volcanic eruptions, desert extent and forest fires. The presence of certain ions indicates past ocean activity, levels of sea ice and even the intensity of the Sun. The bubbles can be released to reveal the make-up of the ancient atmosphere, including greenhouse gas levels.

ice core
A thin section of an ice core extracted from under the Greenland Ice Sheet.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Ludovic Brucker.

Other tools for learning about Earth’s ancient atmosphere include growth rings in trees, which keep a rough record of each growing season’s temperature, moisture and cloudiness going back about 2,000 years. Corals also form growth rings that provide information about temperature and nutrients in the tropical ocean. Other proxies, such as benthic cores, extend our knowledge of past climate back about a billion years.

A close-up image of tree rings
Bill Kasman/Pixabay