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Unlocking the secrets to ending an Ice Age

Filed under: — group @ 28 April 2012

Guest Commentary by Chris Colose, SUNY Albany

It has long been known that characteristics of the Earth’s orbit (its eccentricity, the degree to which it is tilted, and its “wobble”) are slightly altered on timescales of tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Such variations, collectively known as Milankovitch cycles, conspire to pace the timing of glacial-to-interglacial variations.

Despite the immense explanatory power that this hypothesis has provided, some big questions still remain. For one, the relative roles of eccentricity, obliquity, and precession in controlling glacial onsets/terminations are still debated. While the local, seasonal climate forcing by the Milankovitch cycles is large (of the order 30 W/m2), the net forcing provided by Milankovitch is close to zero in the global mean, requiring other radiative terms (like albedo or greenhouse gas anomalies) to force global-mean temperature change.

The last deglaciation occurred as a long process between peak glacial conditions (from ~26-20,000 years ago) to the Holocene (~10,000 years ago). Explaining this evolution is not trivial. Variations in the orbit cause opposite changes in the intensity of solar radiation during the summer between the Northern and Southern hemisphere, yet ice age terminations seem synchronous between hemispheres. This could be explained by the role of the greenhouse gas CO2, which varies in abundance in the atmosphere in sync with the glacial cycles and thus acts as a “globaliser” of glacial cycles, as it is well-mixed throughout the atmosphere. However, if CO2 plays this role it is surprising that climatic proxies indicate that Antarctica seems to have warmed prior to the Northern Hemisphere, yet glacial cycles follow in phase with Northern insolation (“INcoming SOLar radiATION”) patterns, raising questions as to what communication mechanism links the hemispheres.

There have been multiple hypotheses to explain this apparent paradox. One is that the length of the austral summer co-varies with boreal summer intensity, such that local insolation forcings could result in synchronous deglaciations in each hemisphere (Huybers and Denton, 2008). A related idea is that austral spring insolation co-varies with summer duration, and could have forced sea ice retreat in the Southern Ocean and greenhouse gas feedbacks (e.g., Stott et al., 2007).

Based on transient climate model simulations of glacial-interglacial transitions (rather than “snapshots” of different modeled climate states), Ganopolski and Roche (2009) proposed that in addition to CO2, changes in ocean heat transport provide a critical link between northern and southern hemispheres, able to explain the apparent lag of CO2 behind Antarctic temperature. Recently, an elaborate data analysis published in Nature by Shakun et al., 2012 (pdf) has provided strong support for these model predictions. Shakun et al. attempt to interrogate the spatial and temporal patterns associated with the last deglaciation; in doing so, they analyze global-scale patterns (not just records from Antarctica). This is a formidable task, given the need to synchronize many marine, terrestrial, and ice core records.
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References

  1. P. Huybers, and G. Denton, "Antarctic temperature at orbital timescales controlled by local summer duration", Nature Geosci, vol. 1, pp. 787-792, 2008. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo311
  2. L. Stott, A. Timmermann, and R. Thunell, "Southern Hemisphere and Deep-Sea Warming Led Deglacial Atmospheric CO2 Rise and Tropical Warming", Science, vol. 318, pp. 435-438, 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1143791
  3. A. Ganopolski, and D.M. Roche, "On the nature of lead–lag relationships during glacial–interglacial climate transitions", Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, pp. 3361-3378, 2009. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.09.019
  4. J.D. Shakun, P.U. Clark, F. He, S.A. Marcott, A.C. Mix, Z. Liu, B. Otto-Bliesner, A. Schmittner, and E. Bard, "Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation", Nature, vol. 484, pp. 49-54, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature10915

An Arctic methane worst-case scenario

Filed under: — david @ 7 January 2012

Let’s suppose that the Arctic started to degas methane 100 times faster than it is today. I just made that number up trying to come up with a blow-the-doors-off surprise, something like the ozone hole. We ran the numbers to get an idea of how the climate impact of an Arctic Methane Nasty Surprise would stack up to that from Business-as-Usual rising CO2

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Keystone XL: Game over?

Filed under: — raypierre @ 2 November 2011 - (Deutsch) (Español)

The impending Obama administration decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would tap into the Athabasca Oil Sands production of Canada, has given rise to a vigorous grassroots opposition movement, leading to the arrests so far of over a thousand activists. At the very least, the protests have increased awareness of the implications of developing the oil sands deposits. Statements about the pipeline abound.

Jim Hansen has said that if the Athabasca Oil Sands are tapped, it’s “essentially game over” for any hope of achieving a stable climate. The same news article quotes Bill McKibben as saying that the pipeline represents “the fuse to biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” Others say the pipeline is no big deal, and that the brouhaha is sidetracking us from thinking about bigger climate issues. David Keith, energy and climate pundit at Calgary University, expresses that sentiment here, and Andy Revkin says “it’s a distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”. There’s something to be said in favor of each point of view, but on the whole, I think Bill McKibben has the better of the argument, with some important qualifications. Let’s do the arithmetic.

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