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Ancient urine offers clues to current climate change

Today’s climate models are inaccurate as far as southern Africa is concerned, says Professor Brian Chase. Two years ago, Chase received a European Research Council grant for his research on vegetation and climate. The scholarship enabled him to make revolutionary discoveries about the climate based on fossilised badger urine from Southern Africa.

Chase holds a chair at the University of Montpelier in France and is an adjunct professor at the University of Bergen, where he explained how the new discoveries were revolutionising understanding of environmental changes in South Africa.

He and his team of researchers have used a new archive for their climate and vegetation research. Other archives, such as the pollen archive, provide three or four core samples of varying worth and these must be compared with other neighbouring and complementary archives.

The archive for cliff badger urine, however, contains all of the samples taken in the same area, in addition to several other samples, such as DNA.

“The cliff badger has provided answers to our questions, from the same area, the same material and the same samples,” he says.

The researchers have identified a dry period in the Holocene period because the isotopes in the fossilised urine made it possible to identify this important change in the climate, although it cannot be found in analysing material from pollen.

“The fact that our research actually plays a role in helping to understand and interpret the future prospects for the climate is an important source of inspiration,” Chase says.

“Very little research has been carried out on the climate and vegetation in Southern Africa. This is because we do not have access to the same archives that are available for research in more northern areas. But the cliff badger urine archive has turned the situation upside-down.

“The level of detail makes it possible to describe climate changes independent of changes in vegetation and vice versa, and it’s possible to investigate how they affect each other. It’s truly a quantum leap.

“Today’s climate models predict that it will become drier but this is not the case where Southern Africa is concerned. Based on the finds it seems logical to predict the climate will become wetter as it gets warmer.”

He says that although it can seem annoying if findings don’t exactly match the ones of the original models, the fact is models have to be adjusted when investigating climate changes in the future.

“There ought to be cliff badgers everywhere. They provide the best archive material. The quality and variety of information they provide is really quite incredible,” says Chase. “To confirm the information collected so far, we plan to continue the research in all areas in Southern Africa that are affected by drought.”

The researchers are also planning a similar research project in the Middle East, but a lot depends on the political situation in those countries.

* This article first appeared in PÅ HØYDEN, University of Bergen.
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