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COEVOLVE Report Summary

Project ID: 313797
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Germany

Final Report Summary - COEVOLVE (From Forest to Farmland and Meadow to Metropolis: What Role for Humans in Explaining the Enigma of Holocene CO2 and Methane Concentrations?)

The COEVOLVE project asked the question: What role is there for humans in explaining the enigma of Holocene CO2 and methane concentrations? The Holocene, the current period of warm climate that started about 12’000 years ago following the last Ice Age, is unusual for its record of greenhouse gas concentrations. In previous warm periods between ice ages, analyses of CO2 and methane trapped in bubbles in polar ice caps suggest that atmospheric concentrations of these gases gradually declined over millennia before a new Ice Age began. The Holocene started out with reductions in greenhouse gas concentrations in a way similar to other warm periods, but starting between about 6000 and 8000 years ago, something unusual happened: the declining trend in atmospheric CO2 and methane reversed, and begun an inexorable climb that continues today. One of the interpretations of this anomalous reversal in the greenhouse gas concentration trend was that humans caused this rise, through the adoption of agriculture and the domestication of livestock, the invention of metallurgy, and the organization of ever-larger groups of people into energy-intensive urbanized societies. But this idea has been highly controversial ever since its original proposal – many scientists did not believe that there could be a role for humans influencing a global indicator such as greenhouse gas concentrations – and therefore climate – millennia before the Industrial Revolution. We set out to improve our understanding of the critical developments in human history that occurred over the last 8000 years, and to quantify the way these could have influenced the current state and the future of our planet.

To achieve these goals, the COEVOLVE project assembled a truly interdisciplinary team of researchers. Under the leadership of environmental historian and geographer Prof. Jed O. Kaplan, archaeologists worked with ecologists, computer scientists, and biologists to pool knowledge about human activities in the past and how these affected the environment. We developed a new model for understanding the environmental footprint of ancient societies and using archaeological and historical records we classified and mapped land use systems in Africa and the Mediterranean. We created a new way of understanding how landscapes changed over time using a combination of data from satellites and ancient lake sediments and showed that the continent of Europe has generally declined in forest cover over the last 6000 years. While were not yet able to conclusively solve the mystery of Holocene greenhouse gas concentrations, the COVEVOLVE project resulted in a major advance of our understanding of the importance of human activities on the environment in the prehistoric world. It is now undisputed that farming, deforestation, and urbanization led to long-lasting and wide-reaching influence on the earth system, millennia before the Industrial Revolution.

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