Between 1.5 and 0.6 Myr ago, the period of the Earth's glacial cycles changed from 41 kyr, the period of the Earth's obliquity cycles, to 100 kyr, the period of the Earth's orbital eccentricity1,2, which has a much smaller effect on global insolation. The timing of this transition and its causes pose one of the most perplexing problems in palaeoclimate research3. Here we use complex demodulation to examine the phase evolution of precession and semiprecession cycles—the latter of which are phase-coupled to both precession and eccentricity—in the tropical and extra-tropical Atlantic Ocean. We find that about 1.5 Myr ago, tropical semiprecession cycles (with periods of about 11.5 kyr) started to propagate to higher latitudes, coincident with a growing amplitude envelope of the 100-kyr cycles. Evidence from numerical models suggests that cycles of about 10 kyr in length may be required to explain the high amplitude of the 100-kyr cycles4. Combining our results with consideration of a modern analogue, we conclude that increased heat flow across the equator or from the tropics to higher latitudes around 1.5 Myr ago strengthened the semiprecession cycle in the Northern Hemisphere, and triggered the transition to sustained 100-kyr glacial cycles.
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