Past climate change and continental ice melt linked to varying CO2 levels

Scientists at the Universities of Southampton and Cardiff have discovered that a globally warm period in Earth’s geological past featured highly variable levels of CO2.

Previous studies have found that the Miocene climatic optimum, a period that extends from about 15 to 17 million years ago, was associated with big changes in both temperature and the amount of continental ice on the planet.

Now a new study, published in Paleoceanography, has found that these changes in temperature and ice volume were matched by equally dramatic shifts in atmospheric CO2.

Using more detailed records than has previously been available, scientists have shown that CO2 levels in this period reached around 500 ppm (parts per million), the same level that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) projects for the end of the century.

Lead author Rosanna Greenop, from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, says: “The drivers of short term, orbital-scale temperature and ice volume change during warm periods of the Earth’s history have never been analysed before. Here we are able to show that in the same way as the more recent ice ages are linked with cycles of CO2, it also plays an important role in cyclical climate changes during warm periods.

Researchers also showed that at low levels of CO2, ice volume varied strongly, but at higher levels, there was little or no additional change in volume. The authors of the study hypothesis that there must be a portion of the East Antarctic ice sheet that varies in volume at the lower end of the CO2 range. However, the absence of additional ice melt at higher CO2 levels suggests that there is also a portion of the ice sheet that remains stable at the maximum CO2 levels.

Evidence suggests that the northern Hemisphere and West Antarctic ice sheets did not exist during the warm Miocene climatic optimum.

“While we recognise that the Miocene climatic optimum is not a perfect analogue for our own warm future, the geological past does represent an actual reality that the Earth system experienced,” says the University of Southampton’s Dr Gavin Foster, co-author of the study. “As such the findings of this study have large implications for the stability of the continental ice sheets in the future. They indicate that portions of the East Antarctic ice sheet can act in a dynamic fashion, growing and shrinking in response to climate forcing.”

Co-author Caroline Lear, of Cardiff University, adds: “We tend to think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a sluggish ice sheet, but these records show that in past warm climates it has been surprisingly sensitive to natural variations in carbon dioxide levels.

Has the puzzle of rapid climate change in the last ice age been solved?

During the cold stadial periods of the last ice age, massive ice sheets covered northern parts of North America and Europe. Strong northwest winds drove the Arctic sea ice southward, even as far as the French coast. Since the extended ice cover over the North Atlantic prevented the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, the strong driving forces for the ocean currents that prevail today were lacking. Ocean circulation, which is a powerful 'conveyor belt' in the world's oceans, was thus much weaker than at present, and consequently transported less heat to northern regions. -  Map: Alfred-Wegener-Institut
During the cold stadial periods of the last ice age, massive ice sheets covered northern parts of North America and Europe. Strong northwest winds drove the Arctic sea ice southward, even as far as the French coast. Since the extended ice cover over the North Atlantic prevented the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, the strong driving forces for the ocean currents that prevail today were lacking. Ocean circulation, which is a powerful ‘conveyor belt’ in the world’s oceans, was thus much weaker than at present, and consequently transported less heat to northern regions. – Map: Alfred-Wegener-Institut

During the last ice age a large part of North America was covered with a massive ice sheet up to 3km thick. The water stored in this ice sheet is part of the reason why the sea level was then about 120 meters lower than today. Young Chinese scientist Xu Zhang, lead author of the study who undertook his PhD at the Alfred Wegener Institute, explains. “The rapid climate changes known in the scientific world as Dansgaard-Oeschger events were limited to a period of time from 110,000 to 23,000 years before present. The abrupt climate changes did not take place at the extreme low sea levels, corresponding to the time of maximum glaciation 20,000 years ago, nor at high sea levels such as those prevailing today – they occurred during periods of intermediate ice volume and intermediate sea levels.” The results presented by the AWI researchers can explain the history of climate changes during glacial periods, comparing simulated model data with that retrieved from ice cores and marine sediments.

How rapid temperature changes might have occurred during times when the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets were at intermediate sizes (see schematic depictions on

During the cold stadial periods of the last ice age, massive ice sheets covered northern parts of North America and Europe. Strong westerly winds drove the Arctic sea ice southward, even as far as the French coast. Since the extended ice cover over the North Atlantic prevented the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, the strong driving forces for the ocean currents that prevail today were lacking. Ocean circulation, which is a powerful “conveyor belt” in the world’s oceans, was thus much weaker than at present, and consequently transported less heat to northern regions.

During the extended cold phases the ice sheets continued to thicken. When higher ice sheets prevailed over North America, typical in periods of intermediate sea levels, the prevailing westerly winds split into two branches. The major wind field ran to the north of the so-called Laurentide Ice Sheet and ensured that the sea ice boundary off the European coast shifted to the north. Ice-free seas permit heat exchange to take place between the atmosphere and the ocean. At the same time, the southern branch of the northwesterly winds drove warmer water into the ice-free areas of the northeast Atlantic and thus amplified the transportation of heat to the north. The modified conditions stimulated enhanced circulation in the ocean. Consequently, a thicker Laurentide Ice Sheet over North America resulted in increased ocean circulation and therefore greater transportation of heat to the north. The climate in the Northern Hemisphere became dramatically warmer within a few decades until, due to the retreat of the glaciers over North America and the renewed change in wind conditions, it began to cool off again.

“Using the simulations performed with our climate model, we were able to demonstrate that the climate system can respond to small changes with abrupt climate swings,” explains Professor Gerrit Lohmann, leader of the Paleoclimate Dynamics group at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany. In doing so he illustrates the new study’s significance with regards to contemporary climate change. “At medium sea levels, powerful forces, such as the dramatic acceleration of polar ice cap melting, are not necessary to result in abrupt climate shifts and associated drastic temperature changes.”

At present, the extent of Arctic sea ice is far less than during the last glacial period. The Laurentide Ice Sheet, the major driving force for ocean circulation during the glacials, has also disappeared. Climate changes following the pattern of the last ice age are therefore not to be anticipated under today’s conditions.

“There are apparently some situations in which the climate system is more resistant to change while in others the system tends toward strong fluctuations,” summarises Gerrit Lohmann. “In terms of the Earth’s history, we are currently in one of the climate system’s more stable phases. The preconditions, which gave rise to rapid temperature changes during the last ice age do not exist today. But this does not mean that sudden climate changes can be excluded in the future.”

Research provides new theory on cause of ice age 2.6 million years ago

New research published today (Friday 27th June 2014) in the journal Nature Scientific Reports has provided a major new theory on the cause of the ice age that covered large parts of the Northern Hemisphere 2.6 million years ago.

The study, co-authored by Dr Thomas Stevens, from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, found a previously unknown mechanism by which the joining of North and South America changed the salinity of the Pacific Ocean and caused major ice sheet growth across the Northern Hemisphere.

The change in salinity encouraged sea ice to form which in turn created a change in wind patterns, leading to intensified monsoons. These provided moisture that caused an increase in snowfall and the growth of major ice sheets, some of which reached 3km thick.

The team of researchers analysed deposits of wind-blown dust called red clay that accumulated between six million and two and a half million years ago in north central China, adjacent to the Tibetan plateau, and used them to reconstruct changing monsoon precipitation and temperature.

“Until now, the cause of the Quaternary ice age had been a hotly debated topic”, said Dr Stevens. “Our findings suggest a significant link between ice sheet growth, the monsoon and the closing of the Panama Seaway, as North and South America drifted closer together. This provides us with a major new theory on the origins of the ice age, and ultimately our current climate system.”

Surprisingly, the researchers found there was a strengthening of the monsoon during global cooling, instead of the intense rainfall normally associated with warmer climates.

Dr Stevens added: “This led us to discover a previously unknown interaction between plate tectonic movements in the Americas and dramatic changes in global temperature. The intensified monsoons created a positive feedback cycle, promoting more global cooling, more sea ice and even stronger precipitation, culminating in the spread of huge glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere.”

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

<IMG SRC="/Images/485889256.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="262" BORDER="0" ALT="University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.”>
University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.

Last winter’s curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, and suggests it may worsen as Earth’s climate warms.

“If this trend continues, it could contribute to more extreme winter weather events in North America, as experienced this year with warm conditions in California and Alaska and intrusion of cold Arctic air across the eastern USA,” says geochemist Gabe Bowen, senior author of the study.

The study was published online April 16 by the journal Nature Communications.

“A sinuous or curvy winter jet stream means unusual warmth in the West, drought conditions in part of the West, and abnormally cold winters in the East and Southeast,” adds Bowen, an associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. “We saw a good example of extreme wintertime climate that largely fit that pattern this past winter,” although in the typical pattern California often is wetter.

It is not new for scientists to forecast that the current warming of Earth’s climate due to carbon dioxide, methane and other “greenhouse” gases already has led to increased weather extremes and will continue to do so.

The new study shows the jet stream pattern that brings North American wintertime weather extremes is millennia old – “a longstanding and persistent pattern of climate variability,” Bowen says. Yet it also suggests global warming may enhance the pattern so there will be more frequent or more severe winter weather extremes or both.

“This is one more reason why we may have more winter extremes in North America, as well as something of a model for what those extremes may look like,” Bowen says. Human-caused climate change is reducing equator-to-pole temperature differences; the atmosphere is warming more at the poles than at the equator. Based on what happened in past millennia, that could make a curvy jet stream even more frequent and-or intense than it is now, he says.

Bowen and his co-authors analyzed previously published data on oxygen isotope ratios in lake sediment cores and cave deposits from sites in the eastern and western United States and Canada. Those isotopes were deposited in ancient rainfall and incorporated into calcium carbonate. They reveal jet stream directions during the past 8,000 years, a geological time known as middle and late stages of the Holocene Epoch.

Next, the researchers did computer modeling or simulations of jet stream patterns – both curvy and more direct west to east – to show how changes in those patterns can explain changes in the isotope ratios left by rainfall in the old lake and cave deposits.

They found that the jet stream pattern – known technically as the Pacific North American teleconnection – shifted to a generally more “positive phase” – meaning a curvy jet stream – over a 500-year period starting about 4,000 years ago. In addition to this millennial-scale change in jet stream patterns, they also noted a cycle in which increases in the sun’s intensity every 200 years make the jet stream flatter.

Bowen conducted the study with Zhongfang Liu of Tianjin Normal University in China, Kei Yoshimura of the University of Tokyo, Nikolaus Buenning of the University of Southern California, Camille Risi of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Jeffrey Welker of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and Fasong Yuan of Cleveland State University.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and a joint program by the society and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: the Program for Risk Information on Climate Change.

Sinuous Jet Stream Brings Winter Weather Extremes

The Pacific North American teleconnection, or PNA, “is a pattern of climate variability” with positive and negative phases, Bowen says.

“In periods of positive PNA, the jet stream is very sinuous. As it comes in from Hawaii and the Pacific, it tends to rocket up past British Columbia to the Yukon and Alaska, and then it plunges down over the Canadian plains and into the eastern United States. The main effect in terms of weather is that we tend to have cold winter weather throughout most of the eastern U.S. You have a freight car of arctic air that pushes down there.”

Bowen says that when the jet stream is curvy, “the West tends to have mild, relatively warm winters, and Pacific storms tend to occur farther north. So in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest and parts of western interior, it tends to be relatively dry, but tends to be quite wet and unusually warm in northwest Canada and Alaska.”

This past winter, there were times of a strongly curving jet stream, and times when the Pacific North American teleconnection was in its negative phase, which means “the jet stream is flat, mostly west-to-east oriented,” and sometimes split, Bowen says. In years when the jet stream pattern is more flat than curvy, “we tend to have strong storms in Northern California and Oregon. That moisture makes it into the western interior. The eastern U.S. is not affected by arctic air, so it tends to have milder winter temperatures.”

The jet stream pattern – whether curvy or flat – has its greatest effects in winter and less impact on summer weather, Bowen says. The curvy pattern is enhanced by another climate phenomenon, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, which sends a pool of warm water eastward to the eastern Pacific and affects climate worldwide.

Traces of Ancient Rains Reveal Which Way the Wind Blew

Over the millennia, oxygen in ancient rain water was incorporated into calcium carbonate deposited in cave and lake sediments. The ratio of rare, heavy oxygen-18 to the common isotope oxygen-16 in the calcium carbonate tells geochemists whether clouds that carried the rain were moving generally north or south during a given time.

Previous research determined the dates and oxygen isotope ratios for sediments in the new study, allowing Bowen and colleagues to use the ratios to tell if the jet stream was curvy or flat at various times during the past 8,000 years.

Bowen says air flowing over the Pacific picks up water from the ocean. As a curvy jet stream carries clouds north toward Alaska, the air cools and some of the water falls out as rain, with greater proportions of heavier oxygen-18 falling, thus raising the oxygen-18-to-16 ratio in rain and certain sediments in western North America. Then the jet stream curves south over the middle of the continent, and the water vapor, already depleted in oxygen-18, falls in the East as rain with lower oxygen-18-to-16 ratios.

When the jet stream is flat and moving east-to-west, oxygen-18 in rain is still elevated in the West and depleted in the East, but the difference is much less than when the jet stream is curvy.

By examining oxygen isotope ratios in lake and cave sediments in the West and East, Bowen and colleagues showed that a flatter jet stream pattern prevailed from about 8,000 to 4,000 years ago in North America, but then, over only 500 years, the pattern shifted so that curvy jet streams became more frequent or severe or both. The method can’t distinguish frequency from severity.

The new study is based mainly on isotope ratios at Buckeye Creek Cave, W. Va.; Lake Grinell, N.J.; Oregon Caves National Monument; and Lake Jellybean, Yukon.

Additional data supporting increasing curviness of the jet stream over recent millennia came from seven other sites: Crawford Lake, Ontario; Castor Lake, Wash.; Little Salt Spring, Fla.; Estancia Lake, N.M.; Crevice Lake, Mont.; and Dog and Felker lakes, British Columbia. Some sites provided oxygen isotope data; others showed changes in weather patterns based on tree ring growth or spring deposits.

Simulating the Jet Stream

As a test of what the cave and lake sediments revealed, Bowen’s team did computer simulations of climate using software that takes isotopes into account.

Simulations of climate and oxygen isotope changes in the Middle Holocene and today resemble, respectively, today’s flat and curvy jet stream patterns, supporting the switch toward increasing jet stream sinuosity 4,000 years ago.

Why did the trend start then?

“It was a when seasonality becomes weaker,” Bowen says. The Northern Hemisphere was closer to the sun during the summer 8,000 years ago than it was 4,000 years ago or is now due to a 20,000-year cycle in Earth’s orbit. He envisions a tipping point 4,000 years ago when weakening summer sunlight reduced the equator-to-pole temperature difference and, along with an intensifying El Nino climate pattern, pushed the jet stream toward greater curviness.

New study determines more accurate method to date tropical glacier moraines

The Quelccaya Ice Cap, the world's largest tropical ice sheet, is rapidly melting. -  Meredith Kelly
The Quelccaya Ice Cap, the world’s largest tropical ice sheet, is rapidly melting. – Meredith Kelly

A Dartmouth-led team has found a more accurate method to determine the ages of boulders deposited by tropical glaciers, findings that will likely influence previous research of how climate change has impacted ice masses around the equator.

The study appears in the journal Quaternary Geochronology. A PDF of the study is available on request.

Scientists use a variety of dating methods to determine the ages of glacial moraines around the world, from the poles where glaciers are at sea level to the tropics where glaciers are high in the mountains. Moraines are sedimentary deposits that mark the past extents of glaciers. Since glaciers respond sensitively to climate, especially at high latitudes and high altitudes, the timing of glacial fluctuations marked by moraines can help scientists to better understand past climatic variations and how glaciers may respond to future changes.

In the tropics, glacial scientists commonly use beryllium-10 surface exposure dating. Beryllium-10 is an isotope of beryllium produced when cosmic rays strike bedrock that is exposed to air. Predictable rates of decay tell scientists how long ago the isotope was generated and suggest that the rock was covered in ice before then. Elevation, latitude and other factors affect the rate at which beryllium-10 is produced, but researchers typically use rates taken from calibration sites scattered around the globe rather than rates locally calibrated at the sites being studied.

The Dartmouth-led team looked at beryllium-10 concentrations in moraine boulders deposited by the Quelccaya Ice Cap, the largest ice mass in the tropics. Quelccaya, which sits 18,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, has retreated significantly in recent decades. The researchers determined a new locally calibrated production rate that is at least 11 percent to 15 percent lower than the traditional global production rate.

“The use of our locally calibrated beryllium-10 production rate will change the surface exposure ages reported in previously published studies at low latitude, high altitude sites and may alter prior paleoclimate interpretations,” said Assistant Professor Meredith Kelly, the study’s lead author and a glacial geomorphologist at Dartmouth.

The new production rate yields beryllium-10 ages that are older than previously reported, which means the boulders were exposed for longer than previously estimated. Prior studies suggested glaciers in the Peruvian Andes advanced during early Holocene time 8,000 -10,000 years ago, a period thought to have been warm but perhaps wet in the Andes. But the new production rate pushes back the beryllium-10 ages to 11,000 -12,000 years ago when the tropics were cooler and drier. Also during this time, glaciers expanded in the northern hemisphere, which indicates a relationship between the climate mechanisms that caused cooling in the northern hemisphere and southern tropics.

The findings suggest the new production rate should be used to deliver more precise ages of moraines in low-latitude, high-altitude locations, particularly in the tropical Andes. Such precision can help scientists to more accurately reconstruct past glacial and climatic variations, Kelly said.

Antarctic ice core sheds new light on how the last ice age ended

Brian Bencivengo, assistant curator of the National Ice Core Laboratory, in Lakewood, Colo., holds a one-meter-long section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide Ice Core. -  Geoffrey Hargreaves, National Science Foundation
Brian Bencivengo, assistant curator of the National Ice Core Laboratory, in Lakewood, Colo., holds a one-meter-long section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide Ice Core. – Geoffrey Hargreaves, National Science Foundation

Analysis of an ice core taken by the National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide drilling project reveals that warming in Antarctica began about 22,000 years ago, a few thousand years earlier than suggested by previous records.

This timing shows that West Antarctica did not “wait for a cue” from the Northern Hemisphere to start warming, as scientists had previously supposed.

For more than a century scientists have known that Earth’s ice ages are caused by the wobbling of the planet’s orbit, which changes its orientation to the sun and affects the amount of sunlight reaching higher latitudes.

The Northern Hemisphere’s last ice age ended about 20,000 years ago, and most evidence had indicated that the ice age in the Southern Hemisphere ended about 2,000 years later, suggesting that the South was responding to warming in the North.

But research published online Aug. 14 in the journal Nature shows that Antarctic warming began at least two, and perhaps four, millennia earlier than previously thought.

Most previous evidence for Antarctic climate change had come from ice cores drilled in East Antarctica, the highest and coldest part of the continent. However, a U.S.-led research team studying the West Antarctic core found that warming there was well underway 20,000 years ago.

WAIS Divide is a large-scale and multi-year glaciology project supported by the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), which NSF manages. Through USAP, NSF coordinates all U.S. science on the southernmost continent and aboard vessels in the Southern Ocean and provides the necessary logistics to make the science possible.

The WAIS Divide site is in an area where there is little horizontal flow of the ice, so the data are known to be from a location that remained consistent over long periods.

The WAIS Divide ice core is more than two miles deep and covers a period stretching back 68,000 years, though so far data have been analyzed only from layers going back 30,000 years. Near the surface, one meter of snow is equal to a year of accumulation, but at greater depths the annual layers are compressed to centimeters of ice.

“Sometimes we think of Antarctica as this passive continent waiting for other things to act on it. But here it is showing changes before it ‘knows’ what the North is doing,” said T.J. Fudge, a University of Washington doctoral student in Earth and Space Sciences and lead corresponding author of the Nature paper. Fudge’s 41 co-authors are other members of the WAIS project.

Fudge identified the annual layers by running two electrodes along the ice core to measure higher electrical conductivity associated with each summer season. Evidence of greater warming turned up in layers associated with 18,000 to 22,000 years ago, the beginning of the last deglaciation.

“This deglaciation is the last big climate change that we’re able to go back and investigate,” he said. “It teaches us about how our climate system works.”

West Antarctica is separated from East Antarctica by a major mountain range. East Antarctica has a substantially higher elevation and tends to be much colder, though there is recent evidence that it too is warming.

Rapid warming in West Antarctica in recent decades has been documented in previous research by Eric Steig, a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington who serves on Fudge’s doctoral committee and whose laboratory produced the oxygen isotope data used in the Nature paper. The new data confirm that West Antarctica’s climate is more strongly influenced by regional conditions in the Southern Ocean than East Antarctica is.

“It’s not surprising that West Antarctica is showing something different from East Antarctica on long time scales, but we didn’t have direct evidence for that before,” Fudge said.

He noted that the warming in West Antarctica 20,000 years ago is not explained by a change in the sun’s intensity. Instead, how the sun’s energy was distributed over the region was a much bigger factor. It not only warmed the ice sheet but also warmed the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica, particularly during summer months when more sea ice melting could take place.

Changes in Earth’s orbit today are not an important factor in the rapid warming that has been observed recently, he added. “Earth’s orbit changes on the scale of thousands of years, but carbon dioxide today is changing on the scale of decades so climate change is happening much faster today,” Fudge said.

Julie Palais, the Antarctic Glaciology Program director in NSF’s Division of Polar Programs, said new findings will help scientists to “better understand not only what happened at the end of the last ice age but it should also help inform our understanding of what might be happening as the climate warms and conditions begin to change in and around the Antarctic continent.”

She added, “West Antarctica is currently experiencing some of the largest changes on the continent, such as the large calving events in the Amundsen Sea Embayment linked to warm ocean currents undercutting the outlet glaciers. The recent changes are consistent with the WAIS Divide results that show West Antarctica is sensitive to changes in ocean conditions in the past.”

Ice ages only thanks to feedback

Ice ages and warm periods have alternated fairly regularly in the Earth’s history: the Earth’s climate cools roughly every 100,000 years, with vast areas of North America, Europe and Asia being buried under thick ice sheets. Eventually, the pendulum swings back: it gets warmer and the ice masses melt. While geologists and climate physicists found solid evidence of this 100,000-year cycle in glacial moraines, marine sediments and arctic ice, until now they were unable to find a plausible explanation for it.

Using computer simulations, a Japanese, Swiss and American team including Heinz Blatter, an emeritus professor of physical climatology at ETH Zurich, has now managed to demonstrate that the ice-age/warm-period interchange depends heavily on the alternating influence of continental ice sheets and climate.

“If an entire continent is covered in a layer of ice that is 2,000 to 3,000 metres thick, the topography is completely different,” says Blatter, explaining this feedback effect. “This and the different albedo of glacial ice compared to ice-free earth lead to considerable changes in the surface temperature and the air circulation in the atmosphere.” Moreover, large-scale glaciation also alters the sea level and therefore the ocean currents, which also affects the climate.

Weak effect with a strong impact

As the scientists from Tokyo University, ETH Zurich and Columbia University demonstrated in their paper published in the journal Nature, these feedback effects between the Earth and the climate occur on top of other known mechanisms. It has long been clear that the climate is greatly influenced by insolation on long-term time scales. Because the Earth’s rotation and its orbit around the sun periodically change slightly, the insolation also varies. If you examine this variation in detail, different overlapping cycles of around 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years are recognisable (see box).

Given the fact that the 100,000-year insolation cycle is comparatively weak, scientists could not easily explain the prominent 100,000-year-cycle of the ice ages with this information alone. With the aid of the feedback effects, however, this is now possible.

Simulating the ice and climate

The researchers obtained their results from a comprehensive computer model, where they combined an ice-sheet simulation with an existing climate model, which enabled them to calculate the glaciation of the northern hemisphere for the last 400,000 years. The model not only takes the astronomical parameter values, ground topography and the physical flow properties of glacial ice into account but also especially the climate and feedback effects. “It’s the first time that the glaciation of the entire northern hemisphere has been simulated with a climate model that includes all the major aspects,” says Blatter.

Using the model, the researchers were also able to explain why ice ages always begin slowly and end relatively quickly. The ice-age ice masses accumulate over tens of thousands of years and recede within the space of a few thousand years. Now we know why: it is not only the surface temperature and precipitation that determine whether an ice sheet grows or shrinks. Due to the aforementioned feedback effects, its fate also depends on its size. “The larger the ice sheet, the colder the climate has to be to preserve it,” says Blatter. In the case of smaller continental ice sheets that are still forming, periods with a warmer climate are less likely to melt them. It is a different story with a large ice sheet that stretches into lower geographic latitudes: a comparatively brief warm spell of a few thousand years can be enough to cause an ice sheet to melt and herald the end of an ice age.

Box: The Milankovitch cycles

The explanation for the cyclical alternation of ice and warm periods stems from Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch (1879-1958), who calculated the changes in the Earth’s orbit and the resulting insolation on Earth, thus becoming the first to describe that the cyclical changes in insolation are the result of an overlapping of a whole series of cycles: the tilt of the Earth’s axis fluctuates by around two degrees in a 41,000-year cycle. Moreover, the Earth’s axis gyrates in a cycle of 26,000 years, much like a spinning top. Finally, the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun changes in a cycle of around 100,000 years in two respects: on the one hand, it changes from a weaker elliptical (circular) form into a stronger one. On the other hand, the axis of this ellipsis turns in the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The spinning of the Earth’s axis and the elliptical rotation of the axes cause the day on which the Earth is closest to the sun (perihelion) to migrate through the calendar year in a cycle of around 20,000 years: currently, it is at the beginning of January; in around 10,000 years, however, it will be at the beginning of July.

Based on his calculations, in 1941 Milankovitch postulated that insolation in the summer characterises the ice and warm periods at sixty-five degrees north, a theory that was rejected by the science community during his lifetime. From the 1970s, however, it gradually became clearer that it essentially coincides with the climate archives in marine sediments and ice cores. Nowadays, Milankovitch’s theory is widely accepted. “Milankovitch’s idea that insolation determines the ice ages was right in principle,” says Blatter. “However, science soon recognised that additional feedback effects in the climate system were necessary to explain ice ages. We are now able to name and identify these effects accurately.”

Climate change occurring 10 times faster than at any time in past 65 million years

The planet is undergoing one of the largest changes in climate since the dinosaurs went extinct. But what might be even more troubling for humans, plants and animals is the speed of the change. Stanford climate scientists warn that the likely rate of change over the next century will be at least 10 times quicker than any climate shift in the past 65 million years.

If the trend continues at its current rapid pace, it will place significant stress on terrestrial ecosystems around the world, and many species will need to make behavioral, evolutionary or geographic adaptations to survive.

Although some of the changes the planet will experience in the next few decades are already “baked into the system,” how different the climate looks at the end of the 21st century will depend largely on how humans respond.

The findings come from a review of climate research by Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and Chris Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution. The work is part of a special report on climate change in the current issue of Science.

Diffenbaugh and Field, both senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, conducted the targeted but broad review of scientific literature on aspects of climate change that can affect ecosystems, and investigated how recent observations and projections for the next century compare to past events in Earth’s history.

For instance, the planet experienced a 5 degree Celsius hike in temperature 20,000 years ago, as Earth emerged from the last ice age. This is a change comparable to the high-end of the projections for warming over the 20th and 21st centuries.

The geologic record shows that, 20,000 years ago, as the ice sheet that covered much of North America receded northward, plants and animals recolonized areas that had been under ice. As the climate continued to warm, those plants and animals moved northward, to cooler climes.

“We know from past changes that ecosystems have responded to a few degrees of global temperature change over thousands of years,” said Diffenbaugh. “But the unprecedented trajectory that we’re on now is forcing that change to occur over decades. That’s orders of magnitude faster, and we’re already seeing that some species are challenged by that rate of change.”

Some of the strongest evidence for how the global climate system responds to high levels of carbon dioxide comes from paleoclimate studies. Fifty-five million years ago, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was elevated to a level comparable to today. The Arctic Ocean did not have ice in the summer, and nearby land was warm enough to support alligators and palm trees.

“There are two key differences for ecosystems in the coming decades compared with the geologic past,” Diffenbaugh said. “One is the rapid pace of modern climate change. The other is that today there are multiple human stressors that were not present 55 million years ago, such as urbanization and air and water pollution.”

Record-setting heat

Diffenbaugh and Field also reviewed results from two-dozen climate models to describe possible climate outcomes from present day to the end of the century. In general, extreme weather events, such as heat waves and heavy rainfall, are expected to become more severe and more frequent.

For example, the researchers note that, with continued emissions of greenhouse gases at the high end of the scenarios, annual temperatures over North America, Europe and East Asia will increase 2-4 degrees C by 2046-2065. With that amount of warming, the hottest summer of the last 20 years is expected to occur every other year, or even more frequently.

By the end of the century, should the current emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked, temperatures over the northern hemisphere will tip 5-6 degrees C warmer than today’s averages. In this case, the hottest summer of the last 20 years becomes the new annual norm.

“It’s not easy to intuit the exact impact from annual temperatures warming by 6 C,” Diffenbaugh said. “But this would present a novel climate for most land areas. Given the impacts those kinds of seasons currently have on terrestrial forests, agriculture and human health, we’ll likely see substantial stress from severely hot conditions.”

The scientists also projected the velocity of climate change, defined as the distance per year that species of plants and animals would need to migrate to live in annual temperatures similar to current conditions. Around the world, including much of the United States, species face needing to move toward the poles or higher in the mountains by at least one kilometer per year. Many parts of the world face much larger changes.

The human element

Some climate changes will be unavoidable, because humans have already emitted greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere and oceans have already been heated.

“There is already some inertia in place,” Diffenbaugh said. “If every new power plant or factory in the world produced zero emissions, we’d still see impact from the existing infrastructure, and from gases already released.”

The more dramatic changes that could occur by the end of the century, however, are not written in stone. There are many human variables at play that could slow the pace and magnitude of change – or accelerate it.

Consider the 2.5 billion people who lack access to modern energy resources. This energy poverty means they lack fundamental benefits for illumination, cooking and transportation, and they’re more susceptible to extreme weather disasters. Increased energy access will improve their quality of life – and in some cases their chances of survival – but will increase global energy consumption and possibly hasten warming.

Diffenbaugh said that the range of climate projections offered in the report can inform decision-makers about the risks that different levels of climate change pose for ecosystems.

“There’s no question that a climate in which every summer is hotter than the hottest of the last 20 years poses real risks for ecosystems across the globe,” Diffenbaugh said. “However, there are opportunities to decrease those risks, while also ensuring access to the benefits of energy consumption.”

Location of upwelling in Earth’s mantle discovered to be stable

This is a diagram showing a slice through the Earth's mantle, cutting across major mantle upwelling locations beneath Africa and the Pacific. -  C. Conrad (UH SOEST)
This is a diagram showing a slice through the Earth’s mantle, cutting across major mantle upwelling locations beneath Africa and the Pacific. – C. Conrad (UH SOEST)

A study published in Nature today shares the discovery that large-scale upwelling within Earth’s mantle mostly occurs in only two places: beneath Africa and the Central Pacific. More importantly, Clinton Conrad, Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Hawaii – Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) and colleagues revealed that these upwelling locations have remained remarkably stable over geologic time, despite dramatic reconfigurations of tectonic plate motions and continental locations on the Earth’s surface. “For example,” said Conrad, “the Pangaea supercontinent formed and broke apart at the surface, but we think that the upwelling locations in the mantle have remained relatively constant despite this activity.”

Conrad has studied patterns of tectonic plates throughout his career, and has long noticed that the plates were, on average, moving northward. “Knowing this,” explained Conrad, “I was curious if I could determine a single location in the Northern Hemisphere toward which all plates are converging, on average.” After locating this point in eastern Asia, Conrad then wondered if other special points on Earth could characterize plate tectonics. “With some mathematical work, I described the plate tectonic ‘quadrupole’, which defines two points of ‘net convergence’ and two points of ‘net divergence’ of tectonic plate motions.”

When the researchers computed the plate tectonic quadruople locations for present-day plate motions, they found that the net divergence locations were consistent with the African and central Pacific locations where scientists think that mantle upwellings are occurring today. “This observation was interesting and important, and it made sense,” said Conrad. “Next, we applied this formula to the time history of plate motions and plotted the points – I was astonished to see that the points have not moved over geologic time!” Because plate motions are merely the surface expression of the underlying dynamics of the Earth’s mantle, Conrad and his colleagues were able to infer that upwelling flow in the mantle must also remain stable over geologic time. “It was as if I was seeing the ‘ghosts’ of ancient mantle flow patterns, recorded in the geologic record of plate motions!”

Earth’s mantle dynamics govern many aspects of geologic change on the Earth’s surface. This recent discovery that mantle upwelling has remained stable and centered on two locations (beneath Africa and the Central Pacific) provides a framework for understanding how mantle dynamics can be linked to surface geology over geologic time. For example, the researchers can now estimate how individual continents have moved relative to these two upwelling locations. This allows them to tie specific events that are observed in the geologic record to the mantle forces that ultimately caused these events.

More broadly, this research opens up a big question for solid earth scientists: What processes cause these two mantle upwelling locations to remain stable within a complex and dynamically evolving system such as the mantle? One notable observation is that the lowermost mantle beneath Africa and the Central Pacific seems to be composed of rock assemblages that are different than the rest of the mantle. Is it possible that these two anomalous regions at the bottom of the mantle are somehow organizing flow patterns for the rest of the mantle? How?

“Answering such questions is important because geologic features such as ocean basins, mountains belts, earthquakes and volcanoes ultimately result from Earth’s interior dynamics,” Conrad described. “Thus, it is important to understand the time-dependent nature of our planet’s interior dynamics in order to better understand the geological forces that affect the planetary surface that is our home.”

The mantle flow framework that can be defined as a result of this study allows geophysicists to predict surface uplift and subsidence patterns as a function of time. These vertical motions of continents and seafloor cause both local and global changes in sea level. In the future, Conrad wants to use this new understanding of mantle flow patterns to predict changes in sea level over geologic time. By comparing these predictions to observations of sea level change, he hopes to develop new constraints on the influence of mantle dynamics on sea level.

Irish chronicles reveal links between cold weather and volcanic eruptions

Medieval chronicles have given an international group of researchers a glimpse into the past to assess how historical volcanic eruptions affected the weather in Ireland up to 1500 years ago.

By critically assessing over 40,000 written entries in the Irish Annals and comparing them with measurements taken from ice cores, the researchers successfully linked the climatic aftermath of volcanic eruptions to extreme cold weather events in Ireland over a 1200-year period from 431 to 1649.

Their study, which has been published today, 6 June, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, showed that over this timescale up to 48 explosive volcanic eruptions could be identified in the Greenland Ice Sheet Project (GISP2) ice-core, which records the deposition of volcanic sulfate in annual layers of ice.

Of these 48 volcanic events, 38 were associated, closely in time, with 37 extreme cold events, which were identified by systematically examining written entries in the Irish Annals and picking out directly observed meteorological phenomena and conditions, such as heavy snowfall and frost, prolonged ice covering lakes and rivers, and contemporary descriptions of abnormally cold weather.

Lead author of the study, Dr Francis Ludlow, from the Harvard University Center for the Environment and Department of History, said: “It’s clear that the scribes of the Irish Annals were diligent reporters of severe cold weather, most probably because of the negative impacts this had on society and the biosphere.

“Our major result is that explosive volcanic eruptions are strongly, and persistently, implicated in the occurrence of cold weather events over this long timescale in Ireland. In their severity, these events are quite rare for the country’s mild maritime climate.”

Through the injection of sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere, volcanic eruptions can play a significant role in the regulation of the Earth’s climate. Sulphur dioxide gas is converted into sulphate aerosol particles after eruptions which reflect incoming sunlight and result in an overall temporary cooling of the Earth’s surface.

Whilst the global effects of recent eruptions are quite well-known, such as the Mount Pinatubo eruption almost 22 years ago (15 June 1991), less is known about their effects on climate before the beginning of instrumental weather recording, or their effects on regional scales; the Irish Annals provided an opportunity to explore both of these issues.

The Irish Annals contain over one million written words and around 40,000 distinct written entries, detailing major historical events on an annual basis, and providing both systematic and sustained reporting of meteorological extremes.

The dating and reliability of the Annals can be gauged by comparing reported events to those which are independently known, such as solar and lunar eclipses.

“With a few honourable exceptions, the Irish record of extreme events has only been used anecdotally, rather than systematically surveyed and exploited for the study of the climate history of Ireland and the North Atlantic, and so the richness of the record has been largely unrecognized,” continued Dr Ludlow.

Although the effect of big eruptions on the climate in summer is largely to cause cooling, during the winter, low-latitude eruptions in the tropics have instead been known to warm large parts of the northern hemisphere as they cause a strengthening of the westerly winds that brings, for example, warmer oceanic air to Europe; however, this study identified several instances when low-latitude eruptions appeared to correspond to extreme cold winters in Ireland.

One example is the 1600 eruption in Peru of Huaynaputina, which the researchers found, against expectations, to be associated with extreme cold winter weather in Ireland in the following years.

“The possibility that tropical eruptions may result in severe winter cooling for Ireland highlights the considerable complexity of the volcano-climate system in terms of the regional expression of the response of climate to volcanic disturbances.

“It is on the regional scale that we need to refine our understanding of this relationship as ultimately, it is on this scale that individuals and societies plan for extreme weather,” continued Dr Ludlow.