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Catastrophic Climate Change From Outer Space

A new theory says asteroids helped plunge Europe into its last big cold snap

3 min read

During the past two decades—as ­concern about climate change, and especially abrupt climate change, has mounted—Exhibit A has been a compelling scenario that explains a sharp cold snap that occurred in the Northern Hemisphere during what's called the Younger Dryas period. The snap started about 12 800 years ago and lasted about 1200 years. In 1987 Wallace S. Broecker postulated that fresh waters from the southern rim of the North American ice sheet spontaneously spilled into the North Atlantic through what’s now the St. Lawrence River. Such a deluge would have shut down the salt-and-temperature driven currents that draw warm waters into the ocean there and keep Europe ­temperate. Broecker, an eminent geochemist and climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, north of New York City, postulated that the shutdown of the Gulf Stream led to the observed sharp ­cooling—an 8 C drop on average. He dubbed the scenario ”the biggest chill.”

Since 1987, whenever scientists have produced major new findings about what melting Arctic ice will mean, questions inevitably arise as to whether global warming could produce another big chill, plunging Western Europe into another miniature ice age. (Although the answers are almost always reassuring, the accelerated melting of Arctic ice this year and concerns about the long-term fate of Greenland’s ice sheet have kept the issue alive.) When a blue-ribbon panel of scientists produced a report about abrupt climate change for the U.S. National Academies’ National Research Council in 2002, naturally the very first reference was to Broecker’s work.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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