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OK, But we do know it was warmer than present 6000 years ago, don’t we?

Filed under: — mike @ 8 December 2004 - (Français)

This is yet another oft-repeated but problematic assertion based in this case on the mis-characterization of the so-called Mid-Holocene Climatic Optimum” or “Mid-Holocene Warm Period”. Paleoclimate experts now know that the mid-Holocene warmth centered roughly 8000 to 6000 years ago was probably restricted to high latitudes and certain seasons (summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere). Because much of the early paleoclimate evidence that was available (for example, fossil pollen assemblages) came from the Northern Hemisphere extratropics, and is largely reflective of summer conditions, decades ago some scientists believed that this was a time of globally warmer conditions. More abundant evidence now demonstrates, for example, that the tropical regions were cooler over much of the year.

All of these changes are consistent with the expected response of surface temperatures to the known changes in the Earth’s orbital geometry relative to the Sun during that time period and associated climate feedbacks, as detailed in the peer-reviewed literature (see Ganopolski et al, 1998; Hewitt and Mitchell, 1998). The best available evidence suggests that annual, global mean warmth was probably similar to pre-20th century warmth, but less than late 20th century warmth, at this time (see Kitoh and Murakami, 2002).

More information about the Mid-Holocene warm period can be found here.


Ganopolski, A., C. Kubatzki, M. Claussen, V. Brovkin, and V. Petoukhov, The Influence of Vegetation-Atmosphere-Ocean Interaction on Climate During the Mid-Holocene, Science, 280, 1916-1919, 1998.

Hewitt, C.D. and J.F.B. Mitchell, A Fully Coupled GCM Simulation of the Climate of the Mid-Holocene, Geophys. Res. Lett., 25, 361-364, 1998.

Kitoh, A., and S. Murakami, Tropical Pacific Climate at the mid-Holocene and the Last Glacial Maximum simulated by a coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation model, Paleoceanography, 17, 1-13, 2002.

8 Responses to “OK, But we do know it was warmer than present 6000 years ago, don’t we?”

  1. 1
    Dian Deevey says:

    REAL CLIMATE is a Godsend, and not only because it is a source of the ammunition we all need to counter the propaganda churned out by special interests’ hired guns bent on confusing the public and preventing rational government action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

    I know of no other source where I can find important aspects of global climate change science summarized and explained authoritativly and simply, or interpretations of the significance of the avalanche of new findings currently appearing in the scientific literature.

    I have been trying to understand what parts of the conclusions in the 2001 IPCC WG1 report that are going to be changed or revised for the 4th report now in preparation. I look forward to being educated by REAL CLIMATE.

    So continue your good work, but please don’t dumb the product down. Pressure to do so will continue.

    We can all see a need for a non-technical version directed toward the the very large audience of journalists and ordinary concerned citizens who have limited understanding of the technical issues, but really want to know the truth about climate issues.

    But don’t convert REAL CLIMATE to this purpose. You would lose the essential technical details that are largely meaningless to the non-scientist, but make all the difference to the scientific conclusions. Add a new section, or try to get some other agency to translate your posts suitably, and put them somewhere else.

    Congratulations from a very grateful reader.

  2. 2

    Wonderful! Keep up the good work

  3. 3

    A very much needed service, keep it up
    For regional interest see Catskill Weather, Weather History and Climate Guide
    to the Lower Hudson Valley and Adirondack Weather

  4. 4
    Roger Jones says:

    Good work on the site. Following is an Antipodean perspective on palaeoclimatic reconstructions.

    The emphasis on northern hemisphere palaeoclimate records as representing a global record is very problematic for those of us who live and work in the rest of the world.

    In southern Australia, the period 6-8 ka (thousand years) before present, crater lakes that now show falling water levels, were overflowing. Reconstructions of climate indicate that the lake evaporation/rainfall ration was above 1 and could hve been greater than 1.2 (Palaeoclimates, 3, 51â??82). The current ratio in the region is about 0.8. If temperatures and solar radiation were at current levels at 6-8 ka, this would require rainfall at >150% above today’s volumes.

    It is therefore likely that the climate at that time was cooler, particularly in summer (though the cloudy winters may have been warmer, suggesting a more uniform seasonal cycle), suppressing evaporation. Rainfall was certainly higher at that time. An abrupt shift at about 5.5 ka saw some 2,000 years of sustained drying.

    In northern Australia at around 6-7 ka (eastern Queensland), reconstructions indicate warmer and drier conditions in southern Queensland and warmer and wetter conditions in the north ( AbstractBook/Grindrod119_122.pdf), the former from one site and the latter from multiple sites. At that time, animals in the montane tropics were restricted in their distribution due to higher temperatures, suggesting that similar restrictions may occur under global warming (Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 270, 1887-1892; track back through refs for palaeo work). The past 200 years of land-use change in Australia has compromised most hydrological proxies, making reconstruction difficult. We still don’t have a good idea of what was going on in the Holocene in Australia, but words like “optimum”, developed to describe conditions in the cooler regions of the northern hemisphere, confuse when applied globally.

    Note also in reference to the climate of the past 2000 years, south-eastern Australia was relatively cool and wet until about the mid 19th century (Journal of Hydrology, 246, 158-179). It is now as dry in the region as it was in the early Holocene and drier than it has been for most of the Holocene. These changes precede the enhanced greenhouse effect. If changes in rainfall projected by climate models occur it could become as dry in southern Australia as it was about 12.5 ka before present.

    Simple pictures of how Earth’s climate has behaved in the past rarely stand up to regional scrutiny. We should not jump to the conclusion that largely northern hemisphere reconstructions show some kind of globally homogenised picture. Palaeoclimatic reconstructions are sorely needed from the three southern continents: Africa, South America and Australia and from southern islands (the latter mentioned to keep our Kiwi and Pacific friends happy).

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    […] see the links section). The “mid-holocene warm period”, about 6000 years ago, is a similar story, with seasonal warmth at high […]

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    […] natural cycle, see sidebar). The “mid-holocene warm period”, about 6000 years ago, is a similar story, with high-latitude seasonal […]

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