Transient nature of late Pleistocene climate variability

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Climate in the early Pleistocene1 varied with a period of 41 kyr and was related to variations in Earth's obliquity. About 900 kyr ago, variability increased and oscillated primarily at a period of 100 kyr, suggesting that the link was then with the eccentricity of Earth's orbit. This transition has often2,3,4,5 been attributed to a nonlinear response to small changes in external boundary conditions. Here we propose that increasing variablility within the past million years may indicate that the climate system was approaching a second climate bifurcation point, after which it would transition again to a new stable state characterized by permanent mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere glaciation. From this perspective the past million years can be viewed as a transient interval in the evolution of Earth's climate. We support our hypothesis using a coupled energy-balance/ice-sheet model, which furthermore predicts that the future transition would involve a large expansion of the Eurasian ice sheet. The process responsible for the abrupt change seems to be the albedo discontinuity at the snow–ice edge. The best-fit model run, which explains almost 60% of the variance in global ice volume6 during the past 400 kyr, predicts a rapid transition in the geologically near future to the proposed glacial state. Should it be attained, this state would be more ‘symmetric’ than the present climate, with comparable areas of ice/sea-ice cover in each hemisphere, and would represent the culmination of 50 million years of evolution from bipolar nonglacial climates to bipolar glacial climates.

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Figure 1: Evidence for trends in climate variability in the Plio-Pleistocene.
Figure 4: Principal results of the ramp model runs.
Figure 2: Operating curves for climate/ice-sheet model as a function of the solar constant (abscissa).
Figure 3: Simulated ice extent for different stages of North American and Eurasian ice-sheet growth.
Figure 5: Further analyses of best-fit run.


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This research received partial support the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, the Environment, and Society (SAGES) and from the US National Science Foundation. We thank G. North for numerous discussions over the years and S. Obrochta for valuable assistance.

Author Contributions W.T.H. had primary responsibility for model simulations and T.J.C. for analysis of model output, comparison with geological data and write-up of results.

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Correspondence to Thomas J. Crowley.

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Crowley, T., Hyde, W. Transient nature of late Pleistocene climate variability. Nature 456, 226–230 (2008) doi:10.1038/nature07365

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