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Laughing Gas Nitrous Oxide Partly Caused Ice Age to End, May Trigger Global Warming

Jul 25, 2012 11:09 AM EDT

Nitrous oxide known as laughing gas may have partly played a role in the end of the ice age, according to a new study.

Mirjam Pfeiffer of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and her colleagues have found that nitrous oxide from plants that blossomed due to warm temperatures may have played a significant role for the ice age to end, reported the NewScientist.

According to the researchers, European temperatures warmed by 41 degree fahrenheit (5 degree celcius) some 14,500 years ago causing some plants to prosper and release nitrous oxide, which inturn increased the speed of the warming process.

The team of researchers studied the pollen grains, a coarse powder which produces the sperm cells, covered by sediments at the Swiss lake in Gerzense. They analyzed the pollen and found that a sea-buckthorn, deciduous shrubs, had grown in the region due to increase in temperature.

The researchers remodeled the lake to find out how the ecosystem has changed. They noted that sea-buckthorn had released nitrous oxide as the temperatures rose. Sea-buckthorn shrubs need lot of nitrogen to grow and produce nutrients. The shrubs absorb nitrogen from the air to obtain nutrients.  

Due to chemical reaction during the process of absorbing nitrogen, the shrubs released nitrous oxide over a period of years partly paving the way for the ice age to end.

Early research works have suggested various theories as to what provoked the ice age to end. Global warming caused mainly by the increase in the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is one of the prominent reasons cited for the end of the ice age.

A report published in Nature journal pointed out that the Earth wobbled in its axis some 20,000 years ago resulting in the melting of massive ice sheets across the Arctic and Greenland.

The new study by Pfeiffer and his friends can bring insights into how glbal warming can affect the planet. The researchers are a concerned lot and voiced that similar incident may happen in this century in the planet.

Recent study showed that the Arctic is erupting nitrous oxide gas due to the increase in global temperatures. "If we have climate change proceeding very quickly, the huge amounts of nitrogen stored in our ecosystem may be released as nitrous oxide," NewScientist quoted Klaus Butterbach-Bahl of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany as saying.

It is not known how much effect it will have on the Earth's atmosphere.

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