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 http://bit.ly/1uQoI70).

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.”

Solving the puzzle of ice age climates

The paleoclimate record for the last ice age – a time 21,000 years ago called the “Last Glacial Maximum” (LGM) – tells of a cold Earth whose northern continents were covered by vast ice sheets. Chemical traces from plankton fossils in deep-sea sediments reveal rearranged ocean water masses, as well as extended sea ice coverage off Antarctica. Air bubbles in ice cores show that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was far below levels seen before the Industrial Revolution.

While ice ages are set into motion by Earth’s slow wobbles in its transit around the sun, researchers agree that the solar-energy decrease alone wasn’t enough to cause this glacial state. Paleoclimatologists have been trying to explain the actual mechanism behind these changes for 200 years.

“We have all these scattered pieces of information about changes in the ocean, atmosphere, and ice cover,” says Raffaele Ferrari, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Physical Oceanography in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, “and what we really want to see is how they all fit together.”

Researchers have always suspected that the answer must lie somewhere in the oceans. Powerful regulators of Earth’s climate, the oceans store vast amounts of organic carbon for thousands of years, keeping it from escaping into the atmosphere as CO2. Seawater also takes up CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesizing microbes at the surface, and via circulation patterns.

In a new application of ocean physics, Ferrari, along with Malte Jansen PhD ’12 of Princeton University and others at the California Institute of Technology, have found a new approach to the puzzle, which they detail in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lung of the ocean


The researchers focused on the Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica – a critical part of the carbon cycle because it provides a connection between the atmosphere and the deep ocean abyss. Ruffled by the winds whipping around Antarctica, the Southern Ocean is one of the only places where the deepest carbon-rich waters ever rise to the surface, to “breathe” CO2 in and out.

The modern-day Southern Ocean has a lot of room to breathe: Deeper, carbon-rich waters are constantly mixing into the waters above, a process enhanced by turbulence as water runs over jagged, deep-ocean ridges.

But during the LGM, permanent sea ice covered much more of the Southern Ocean’s surface. Ferrari and colleagues decided to explore how that extended sea ice would have affected the Southern Ocean’s ability to exchange CO2 with the atmosphere.

Shock to the system


This question demanded the use of the field’s accumulated knowledge of ocean physics. Using a mathematical equation that describes the wind-driven ocean circulation patterns around Antarctica, the researchers calculated the amount of water that was trapped under the sea ice by currents in the LGM. They found that the shock to the entire Earth from this added ice cover was massive: The ice covered the only spot where the deep ocean ever got to breathe. Since the sea ice capped these deep waters, the Southern Ocean’s CO2 was never exhaled to the atmosphere.

The researchers then saw a link between the sea ice change and the massive rearrangement of ocean waters that is evident in the paleoclimate record. Under the expanded sea ice, a greater amount of upwelled deep water sank back downward. Southern Ocean abyssal water eventually filled a greater volume of the entire midlevel and lower ocean – lifting the interface between upper and lower waters to a shallower depth, such that the deep, carbon-rich waters lost contact with the upper ocean. Breathing less, the ocean could store a lot more carbon.

A Southern Ocean suffocated by sea ice, the researchers say, helps explain the big drop in atmospheric CO2 during the LGM.

Dependent relationship


The study suggests a dynamic link between sea-ice expansion and the increase of ocean water insulated from the atmosphere, which the field has long treated as independent events. This insight takes on extra relevance in light of the fact that paleoclimatologists need to explain not just the very low levels of atmospheric CO2 during the last ice age, but also the fact that this happened during each of the last four glacial periods, as the paleoclimate record reveals.

Ferrari says that it never made sense to argue that independent changes drew down CO2 by the exact same amount in every ice age. “To me, that means that all the events that co-occurred must be incredibly tightly linked, without much freedom to drift beyond a narrow margin,” he says. “If there is a causality effect among the events at the start of an ice age, then they could happen in the same ratio.”

Underwater ‘tree rings’

This alga can be found in coastal regions of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic Ocean, where it can live for hundreds of years. -  Nick Caloyianus
This alga can be found in coastal regions of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic Ocean, where it can live for hundreds of years. – Nick Caloyianus

Almost 650 years of annual change in sea-ice cover can been seen in the calcite crust growth layers of seafloor algae, says a new study from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM).

“This is the first time coralline algae have been used to track changes in Arctic sea ice,” says Jochen Halfar, an associate professor in UTM’s Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences. “We found the algal record shows a dramatic decrease in ice cover over the last 150 years.”

With colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, Germany and Newfoundland, Halfar collected and analyzed samples of the alga Clathromorphum compactum. This long-lived plant species forms thick rock-like calcite crusts on the seafloor in shallow waters 15 to 17 metres deep. It is widely distributed in the Arctic and sub-Arctic Oceans.

Divers retrieved the specimens from near-freezing seawater during several research cruises led by Walter Adey from the Smithsonian.

The algae’s growth rates depend on the temperature of the water and the light they receive. As snow-covered sea ice accumulates on the water over the algae, it turns the sea floor dark and cold, stopping the plants’ growth. When the sea ice melts in the warm months, the algae resume growing their calcified crusts.

This continuous cycle of dormancy and growth results in visible layers that can be used to determine the length of time the algae were able to grow each year during the ice-free season.

“It’s the same principle as using rings to determine a tree’s age and the levels of precipitation,” says Halfar. “In addition to ring counting, we used radiocarbon dating to confirm the age of the algal layers.”

After cutting and polishing the algae, Halfar used a specialized microscope to take thousands of images of each sample. The images were combined to give a complete overview of the fist-sized specimens.

Halfar corroborated the length of the algal growth periods through the magnesium levels preserved in each growth layer. The amount of magnesium is dependent on both the light reaching the algae and the temperature of the sea water. Longer periods of open and warm water result in a higher amount of algal magnesium.

During the Little Ice Age, a period of global cooling that lasted from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s, the algae’s annual growth increments were as narrow as 30 microns due to the extensive sea-ice cover, Halfar says. However, since 1850, the thickness of the algae’s growth increments have more than doubled, bearing witness to an unprecedented decline in sea ice coverage that has accelerated in recent decades.

Halfar says the coralline algae represent not only a new method for climate reconstruction, but are vital to extending knowledge of the climate record back in time to permit more accurate modeling of future climate change.

Currently, observational information about annual changes in the Earth’s temperature and climate go back 150 years. Reliable information about sea-ice coverage comes from satellites and dates back only to the late 1970s.

“In the north, there is nothing in the shallow oceans that tells us about climate, water temperature or sea ice coverage on an annual basis,” says Halfar. “These algae, which live over a thousand years, can now provide us with that information.”

NASA data reveals mega-canyon under Greenland Ice Sheet

Data from a NASA airborne science mission reveals evidence of a large and previously unknown canyon hidden under a mile of Greenland ice.

The canyon has the characteristics of a winding river channel and is at least 460 miles (750 kilometers) long, making it longer than the Grand Canyon. In some places, it is as deep as 2,600 feet (800 meters), on scale with segments of the Grand Canyon. This immense feature is thought to predate the ice sheet that has covered Greenland for the last few million years.

“One might assume that the landscape of the Earth has been fully explored and mapped,” said Jonathan Bamber, professor of physical geography at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and lead author of the study. “Our research shows there’s still a lot left to discover.”

Bamber’s team published its findings Thursday in the journal Science.

The scientists used thousands of miles of airborne radar data, collected by NASA and researchers from the United Kingdom and Germany over several decades, to piece together the landscape lying beneath the Greenland ice sheet.

A large portion of this data was collected from 2009 through 2012 by NASA’s Operation IceBridge, an airborne science campaign that studies polar ice. One of IceBridge’s scientific instruments, the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, can see through vast layers of ice to measure its thickness and the shape of bedrock below.

In their analysis of the radar data, the team discovered a continuous bedrock canyon that extends from almost the center of the island and ends beneath the Petermann Glacier fjord in northern Greenland.

At certain frequencies, radio waves can travel through the ice and bounce off the bedrock underneath. The amount of times the radio waves took to bounce back helped researchers determine the depth of the canyon. The longer it took, the deeper the bedrock feature.

“Two things helped lead to this discovery,” said Michael Studinger, IceBridge project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “It was the enormous amount of data collected by IceBridge and the work of combining it with other datasets into a Greenland-wide compilation of all existing data that makes this feature appear in front of our eyes.”

The researchers believe the canyon plays an important role in transporting sub-glacial meltwater from the interior of Greenland to the edge of the ice sheet into the ocean. Evidence suggests that before the presence of the ice sheet, as much as 4 million years ago, water flowed in the canyon from the interior to the coast and was a major river system.

“It is quite remarkable that a channel the size of the Grand Canyon is discovered in the 21st century below the Greenland ice sheet,” said Studinger. “It shows how little we still know about the bedrock below large continental ice sheets.”

The IceBridge campaign will return to Greenland in March 2014 to continue collecting data on land and sea ice in the Arctic using a suite of instruments that includes ice-penetrating radar.




Video
Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
Hidden for all of human history, a 460-mile-long canyon has been discovered below Greenland’s ice sheet. Using radar data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge and other airborne campaigns, scientists led by a team from the University of Bristol found the canyon runs from near the center of the island northward to the fjord of the Petermann Glacier.

A large portion of the data was collected by IceBridge from 2009 through 2012. One of the mission’s scientific instruments, the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, operated by the Center for the Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas, can see through vast layers of ice to measure its thickness and the shape of bedrock below.

This is a narrated version of an animation that can be found, along with more detailed information, here:

Greenland’s Mega-Canyon beneath the Ice Sheet (id 4097) – NASA SVS

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.”

Earth orbit changes key to Antarctic warming that ended last ice age

A West Antarctica Ice Sheet Divide project researcher stands in a snow pit next to an ice core with data from 68,000 years ago. The prominent line across the middle of the ice separates one year's ice and snow accumulation from the next year's. -  Kendrick Taylor/Desert Research Institute
A West Antarctica Ice Sheet Divide project researcher stands in a snow pit next to an ice core with data from 68,000 years ago. The prominent line across the middle of the ice separates one year’s ice and snow accumulation from the next year’s. – Kendrick Taylor/Desert Research Institute

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, particularly the polar regions.

The Northern Hemisphere’s last ice age ended about 20,000 years ago, and most evidence has 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 new research published online Aug. 14 in Nature shows that Antarctic warming began at least two, and perhaps four, millennia earlier than previously thought.

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

“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.

Co-authors are 41 other members of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide project, which is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.

The findings come from a detailed examination of an ice core taken from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide, 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 ice core is more than 2 miles deep and covers 68,000 years, though so far data have been analyzed only from layers going back 30,000 years. Near the surface, 1 meter of ice covers one year, but at greater depths the annual layers are compressed to centimeters.

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 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 UW professor of Earth and space sciences 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 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.

Ice-free Arctic winters could explain amplified warming during Pliocene

Year-round ice-free conditions across the surface of the Arctic Ocean could explain why the Earth was substantially warmer during the Pliocene Epoch than it is today, despite similar concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to new research carried out at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In early May, instruments at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii marked a new record: The concentration of carbon dioxide climbed to 400 parts per million for the first time in modern history.

The last time researchers believe the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached 400 ppm-between 3 and 5 million years ago during the Pliocene-the Earth was about 3.5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer (2 to 5 degrees Celsius) than it is today. During that time period, trees overtook the tundra, sprouting right to the edges of the Arctic Ocean, and the seas swelled, pushing ocean levels 65 to 80 feet higher.

Scientists’ understanding of the climate during the Pliocene has largely been pieced together from fossil records preserved in sediments deposited beneath lakes and on the ocean floor.

“When we put 400 ppm carbon dioxide into a model, we don’t get as warm a planet as we see when we look at paleorecords from the Pliocene,” said Jim White, director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and co-author of the new study published online in the journal Palaeogeography, Paleoclimatology, Palaeoecology. “That tells us that there may be something missing in the climate models.”

Scientists have proposed several hypotheses in the past to explain the warmer Pliocene climate. One idea, for example, was that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land linking North and South America, could have altered ocean circulations during the Pliocene, forcing warmer waters toward the Arctic. But many of those hypotheses, including the Panama possibility, have not proved viable.

For the new study, led by Ashley Ballantyne, a former CU-Boulder doctoral student who is now an assistant professor of bioclimatology at the University of Montana, the research team decided to see what would happen if they forced the model to assume that the Arctic was free of ice in the winter as well as the summer during the Pliocene. Without these additional parameters, climate models set to emulate atmospheric conditions during the Pliocene show ice-free summers followed by a layer of ice reforming during the sunless winters.

“We tried a simple experiment in which we said, ‘We don’t know why sea ice might be gone all year round, but let’s just make it go away,’ ” said White, who also is a professor of geological sciences. “And what we found was that we got the right kind of temperature change and we got a dampened seasonal cycle, both of which are things we think we see in the Pliocene.”

In the model simulation, year-round ice-free conditions caused warmer conditions in the Arctic because the open water surface allowed for evaporation. Evaporation requires energy, and the water vapor then stored that energy as heat in the atmosphere. The water vapor also created clouds, which trapped heat near the planet’s surface.

“Basically, when you take away the sea ice, the Arctic Ocean responds by creating a blanket of water vapor and clouds that keeps the Arctic warmer,” White said.

White and his colleagues are now trying to understand what types of conditions could bridge the standard model simulations with the simulations in which ice-free conditions in the Arctic are imposed. If they’re successful, computer models would be able to model the transition between a time when ice reformed in the winter to a time when the ocean remained devoid of ice throughout the year.

Such a model also would offer insight into what could happen in our future. Currently, about 70 percent of sea ice disappears during the summertime before reforming in the winter.

“We’re trying to understand what happened in the past but with a very keen eye to the future and the present,” White said. “The piece that we’re looking at in the future is what is going to happen as the Arctic Ocean warms up and becomes more ice-free in the summertime.

“Will we continue to return to an ice-covered Arctic in the wintertime? Or will we start to see some of the feedbacks that now aren’t very well represented in our climate models? If we do, that’s a big game changer.”

Study shows how early Earth kept warm enough to support life

This is an artist's conception of the Earth during the late Archean, 2.8 billion years ago. Weak solar radiation requires the Earth have increased greenhouse gas amounts to remain warm. CU-Boulder doctoral student Eric Wolf Wolf and CU-Boulder Professor Brian Toon use a three-dimensional climate model to show that the late Archean may have maintained large areas of liquid surface water despite a relatively weak greenhouse. With carbon dioxide levels within constraints deduced from ancient soils, the late Archean may have had large polar ice caps but lower latitudes would have remained temperate and thus hospitable to life. The addition of methane allows the late Archean to warmed to present day mean surface temperatures. -  Charlie Meeks
This is an artist’s conception of the Earth during the late Archean, 2.8 billion years ago. Weak solar radiation requires the Earth have increased greenhouse gas amounts to remain warm. CU-Boulder doctoral student Eric Wolf Wolf and CU-Boulder Professor Brian Toon use a three-dimensional climate model to show that the late Archean may have maintained large areas of liquid surface water despite a relatively weak greenhouse. With carbon dioxide levels within constraints deduced from ancient soils, the late Archean may have had large polar ice caps but lower latitudes would have remained temperate and thus hospitable to life. The addition of methane allows the late Archean to warmed to present day mean surface temperatures. – Charlie Meeks

Solving the “faint young sun paradox” — explaining how early Earth was warm and habitable for life beginning more than 3 billion years ago even though the sun was 20 percent dimmer than today — may not be as difficult as believed, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study.

In fact, two CU-Boulder researchers say all that may have been required to sustain liquid water and primitive life on Earth during the Archean eon 2.8 billion years ago were reasonable atmospheric carbon dioxide amounts believed to be present at the time and perhaps a dash of methane. The key to the solution was the use of sophisticated three-dimensional climate models that were run for thousands of hours on CU’s Janus supercomputer, rather than crude, one-dimensional models used by almost all scientists attempting to solve the paradox, said doctoral student Eric Wolf, lead study author.

“It’s really not that hard in a three-dimensional climate model to get average surface temperatures during the Archean that are in fact moderate,” said Wolf, a doctoral student in CU-Boulder’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department. “Our models indicate the Archean climate may have been similar to our present climate, perhaps a little cooler. Even if Earth was sliding in and out of glacial periods back then, there still would have been a large amount of liquid water in equatorial regions, just like today.”

Evolutionary biologists believe life arose on Earth as simple cells roughly 3.5 billion years ago, about a billion years after the planet is thought to have formed. Scientists have speculated the first life may have evolved in shallow tide pools, freshwater ponds, freshwater or deep-sea hydrothermal vents, or even arrived on objects from space.

A cover article by Wolf and Professor Brian Toon on the topic appears in the July issue of Astrobiology. The study was funded by two NASA grants and by the National Science Foundation, which supports CU-Boulder’s Janus supercomputer used for the study.

Scientists have been trying to solve the faint young sun paradox since 1972, when Cornell University scientist Carl Sagan — Toon’s doctoral adviser at the time — and colleague George Mullen broached the subject. Since then there have been many studies using 1-D climate models to try to solve the faint young sun paradox — with results ranging from a hot, tropical Earth to a “snowball Earth” with runaway glaciation — none of which have conclusively resolved the problem.

“In our opinion, the one-dimensional models of early Earth created by scientists to solve this paradox are too simple — they are essentially taking the early Earth and reducing it to a single column atmospheric profile,” said Toon. “One-dimensional models are simply too crude to give an accurate picture.”

Wolf and Toon used a general circulation model known as the Community Atmospheric Model version 3.0 developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and which contains 3-D atmosphere, ocean, land, cloud and sea ice components. The two researchers also “tuned up” the model with a sophisticated radiative transfer component that allowed for the absorption, emission and scattering of solar energy and an accurate calculation of the greenhouse effect for the unusual atmosphere of early Earth, where there was no oxygen and no ozone, but lots of CO2 and possibly methane.

The simplest solution to the faint sun paradox, which duplicates Earth’s present climate, involves maintaining roughly 20,000 parts per million of the greenhouse gas CO2 and 1,000 ppm of methane in the ancient atmosphere some 2.8 billion years ago, said Wolf. While that may seem like a lot compared to today’s 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, geological studies of ancient soil samples support the idea that CO2 likely could have been that high during that time period. Methane is considered to be at least 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and could have played a significant role in warming the early Earth as well, said the CU researchers.

There are other reasons to believe that CO2 was much higher in the Archean, said Toon, who along with Wolf is associated with CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The continental area of Earth was smaller back then so there was less weathering of the land and a lower release of minerals to the oceans. As a result there was a smaller conversion of CO2 to limestone in the ocean. Likewise, there were no “rooted” land plants in the Archean, which could have accelerated the weathering of the soils and indirectly lowered the atmospheric abundance of CO2, Toon said.

Another solution to achieving a habitable but slightly cooler climate under the faint sun conditions is for the Archean atmosphere to have contained roughly 15,000 to 20,000 ppm of CO2 and no methane, said Wolf. “Our results indicate that a weak version of the faint young sun paradox, requiring only that some portion of the planet’s surface maintain liquid water, may be resolved with moderate greenhouse gas inventories,” the authors wrote in Astrobiology.

“Even if half of Earth’s surface was below freezing back in the Archean and half was above freezing, it still would have constituted a habitable planet since at least 50 percent of the ocean would have remained open,” said Wolf. “Most scientists have not considered that there might have been a middle ground for the climate of the Archean.

“The leap from one-dimensional to three-dimensional models is an important step,” said Wolf. “Clouds and sea ice are critical factors in determining climate, but the one-dimensional models completely ignore them.”

Has the faint young sun paradox finally been solved? “I don’t want to be presumptuous here,” said Wolf. “But we show that the paradox is definitely not as challenging as was believed over the past 40 years. While we can’t say definitively what the atmosphere looked like back then without more geological evidence, it is certainly not a stretch at all with our model to get a warm early Earth that would have been hospitable to life.”

“The Janus supercomputer has been a tremendous addition to the campus, and this early Earth climate modeling project would have impossible without it,” said Toon. The researchers estimated the project required roughly 6,000 hours of supercomputer computation time, an effort equal to about 10 years on a home computer.

Arctic current flowed under deep freeze of last ice age, study says

Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. -  National Snow & Ice Data Center
Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. – National Snow & Ice Data Center

During the last ice age, when thick ice covered the Arctic, many scientists assumed that the deep currents below that feed the North Atlantic Ocean and help drive global ocean currents slowed or even stopped. But in a new study in Nature, researchers show that the deep Arctic Ocean has been churning briskly for the last 35,000 years, through the chill of the last ice age and warmth of modern times, suggesting that at least one arm of the system of global ocean currents that move heat around the planet has behaved similarly under vastly different climates.

“The Arctic Ocean must have been flushed at approximately the same rate it is today regardless of how different things were at the surface,” said study co-author Jerry McManus, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Researchers reconstructed Arctic circulation through deep time by measuring radioactive trace elements buried in sediments on the Arctic seafloor. Uranium eroded from the continents and delivered to the ocean by rivers, decays into sister elements thorium and protactinium. Thorium and protactinium eventually attach to particles falling through the water and wind up in mud at the bottom. By comparing expected ratios of thorium and protactinium in those ocean sediments to observed amounts, the authors showed that protactinium was being swept out of the Arctic before it could settle to the ocean bottom.From the amount of missing protactinium, scientists can infer how quickly the overlying water must have been flushed at the time the sediments were accumulating.

“The water couldn’t have been stagnant, because we see the export of protactinium,” said the study’s lead author, Sharon Hoffmann, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty.

The upper part of the modern Arctic Ocean is flushed by North Atlantic currents while the Arctic’s deep basins are flushed by salty currents formed during sea ice formation at the surface. “The study shows that both mechanisms must have been active from the height of glaciation until now,” said Robert Newton, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty who was not involved in the research. “There must have been significant melt-back of sea ice each summer even at the height of the last ice age to have sea ice formation on the shelves each year. This will be a surprise to many Arctic researchers who believe deep water formation shuts down during glaciations.”

The researchers analyzed sediment cores collected during the U.S.-Canada Arctic Ocean Section cruise in 1994, a major Arctic research expedition that involved several Lamont-Doherty scientists. In each location, the cores showed that protactinium has been lower than expected for at least the past 35,000 years. By sampling cores from a range of depths, including the bottom of the Arctic deep basins, the researchers show that even the deepest waters were being flushed out at about the same rate as in the modern Arctic.

The only deep exit from the Arctic is through Fram Strait, which divides Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard islands. The deep waters of the modern Arctic flow into the North Atlantic via the Nordic seas, contributing up to 40 percent of the water that becomes North Atlantic Deep Water-known as the “ocean’s lungs” for delivering oxygen and salt to the rest of world’s oceans.

One direction for future research is to find out where the missing Arctic protactinium of the past ended up. “It’s somewhere,” said McManus. “All the protactinium in the ocean is buried in ocean sediments. If it’s not buried in one place, it’s buried in another. Our evidence suggests it’s leaving the Arctic but we think it’s unlikely to get very far before being removed.”