Paleoclimate: The End of the Holocene

Recently a group of researchers from Harvard and Oregon State University has published the first global temperature reconstruction for the last 11,000 years – that’s the whole Holocene (Marcott et al. 2013). The results are striking and worthy of further discussion, after the authors have already commented on their results in this blog.

A while ago, I discussed here the new, comprehensive climate reconstruction from the PAGES 2k project for the past 2000 years. But what came before that? Does the long-term cooling trend that ruled most of the last two millennia reach even further back into the past?

Over the last decades, numerous researchers have painstakingly collected, analyzed, dated, and calibrated many data series that allow us to reconstruct climate before the age of direct measurements. Such data come e.g. from sediment drilling in the deep sea, from corals, ice cores and other sources. Shaun Marcott and colleagues for the first time assembled 73 such data sets from around the world into a global temperature reconstruction for the Holocene, published in Science. Or strictly speaking, many such reconstructions: they have tried about twenty different averaging methods and also carried out 1,000 Monte Carlo simulations with random errors added to the dating of the individual data series to demonstrate the robustness of their results.

To show the main result straight away, it looks like this:


Figure 1 Blue curve: Global temperature reconstruction from proxy data of Marcott et al, Science 2013. Shown here is the RegEM version – significant differences between the variants with different averaging methods arise only towards the end, where the number of proxy series decreases. This does not matter since the recent temperature evolution is well known from instrumental measurements, shown in red (global temperature from the instrumental HadCRU data). Graph: Klaus Bitterman.

The climate curve looks like a “hump”. At the beginning of the Holocene – after the end of the last Ice Age – global temperature increased, and subsequently it decreased again by 0.7 ° C over the past 5000 years. The well-known transition from the relatively warm Medieval into the “little ice age” turns out to be part of a much longer-term cooling, which ended abruptly with the rapid warming of the 20th Century. Within a hundred years, the cooling of the previous 5000 years was undone. (One result of this is, for example, that the famous iceman ‘Ötzi’, who disappeared under ice 5000 years ago, reappeared in 1991.)

The shape of the curve is probably not surprising to climate scientists as it fits with the forcing due to orbital cycles. Marcott et al. illustrate the orbital forcing with this graphic:


Figure 2 Changes in incoming solar radiation as a function of latitude in December, January and annual average, due to the astronomical Milankovitch cycles (known as orbital forcing). Source: Marcott et al., 2013.

Page 1 of 4 | Next page