Letters to Nature

Nature 391, 378-381 (22 January 1998) | doi:10.1038/34891; Received 17 January 1997; Accepted 4 November 1997

The timing of Pleistocene glaciations from a simple multiple-state climate model

Didier Paillard1

  1. Laboratoire de Modélisation du Climat et de l'Environnement, CEA/DSM, Centre d'Etudes de Saclay, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

Correspondence to: Didier Paillard1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to the author (e-mail: Email: paillar@asterix.saclay.cea.fr).

The Earth's climate over the past million years has been characterized by a succession of cold and warm periods, known as glacial–interglacial cycles, with periodicities corresponding to those of the Earth's main orbital parameters; precession (23 kyr), obliquity (41 kyr) and eccentricity (100 kyr). The astronomical theory of climate, in which the orbital variations are taken to drive the climate changes, has been very successful in explaining many features of the palaeoclimate records1. Nevertheless, the timing of the main glacial and interglacial periods remains puzzling in many respects2, 3, 4, 5. In particular, the main glacial–interglacial switches occur approximately every 100 kyr, but the changes in insolation forcing are very small in this frequency band. Similarly, an especially warm interglacial episode, about 400,000 years ago7, occurred at a time when insolation variations were minimal. Here I propose that multiple equilibria in the climate system can provide a resolution of these problems within the framework of astronomical theory. I present two simple models that successfully simulate each glacial–interglacial cycle over the late Pleistocene epoch at the correct time and with approximately the correct amplitude. Moreover, in a simulation over the past 2 million years, the onset of the observed prominent approx100-kyr cycles around 0.8 to 1 million years ago is correctly reproduced.