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Studying the Climate of the Past Is Essential for Preparing for Today

In 1942 Winston Churchill said: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” And indeed, many cultures study history for political and military insight. I study fossils that are millions of years old because I am concerned about the future. As a paleontologist, I think it is time to establish a tradition that uses geological history to anticipate—and thus plan for—the future.

I didn’t always think this way. I became addicted to finding fossils because it was a kind of exploration, and because I loved the feeling of being transported through time simply by walking up and down the layered hillsides of Wyoming and Montana.

I continued in this happy phase of exploration through the first decade of my career. But things changed in 1990, when two climate scientists published a map—a computer simulation of global climate 50 million years ago. It showed a relatively cold world—winters that fell below freezing across northern Asia, Europe and North America.

Oregon State University

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