Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Late Holocene methane rise caused by orbitally controlled increase in tropical sources


Considerable debate surrounds the source of the apparently ‘anomalous’1 increase of atmospheric methane concentrations since the mid-Holocene (5,000 years ago) compared to previous interglacial periods as recorded in polar ice core records2. Proposed mechanisms for the rise in methane concentrations relate either to methane emissions from anthropogenic early rice cultivation1,3 or an increase in natural wetland emissions from tropical4 or boreal sources5,6. Here we show that our climate and wetland simulations of the global methane cycle over the last glacial cycle (the past 130,000 years) recreate the ice core record and capture the late Holocene increase in methane concentrations. Our analyses indicate that the late Holocene increase results from natural changes in the Earth's orbital configuration, with enhanced emissions in the Southern Hemisphere tropics linked to precession-induced modification of seasonal precipitation. Critically, our simulations capture the declining trend in methane concentrations at the end of the last interglacial period (115,000–130,000 years ago) that was used to diagnose the Holocene methane rise as unique. The difference between the two time periods results from differences in the size and rate of regional insolation changes and the lack of glacial inception in the Holocene. Our findings also suggest that no early agricultural sources are required to account for the increase in methane concentrations in the 5,000 years before the industrial era.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Time series of model and ice core data for the last glacial cycle.
Figure 2: A comparison of model- and data-based CH 4 concentrations from the current interglacial and the previous interglacial (Eemian) periods.
Figure 3: Temporal and spatial patterns of modelled methane emission changes for the last glacial cycle.


  1. Ruddiman, W. F. The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago. Clim. Change 61, 261–293 (2003)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Spahni, R. et al. Atmospheric methane and nitrous oxide of the Late Pleistocene from Antarctic ice cores. Science 310, 1317–1321 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Ruddiman, W. F., Guo, Z., Zhou, X., Wu, H. & Yu, Y. Early rice farming and anomalous methane trends. Quat. Sci. Rev. 27, 1291–1295 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Chappellaz, J. et al. Variations of the Greenland/Antarctic concentration difference in atmospheric methane during the last 11,000 years. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 15987–15997 (1997)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Schmidt, G. A., Shindell, D. T. & Harder, S. L. A note on the relationship between ice core methane concentrations and insolation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31 L23206 10.1029/2004GL021083 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Sowers, T. Atmospheric methane isotope records covering the Holocene period. Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 213–221 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Forster, P. et al. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 130–234 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Loulergue, L. et al. Orbital and millennial-scale features of atmospheric CH4 over the past 800,000 years. Nature 453, 383–386 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Ruddiman, W. F. & Thomson, J. S. The case for human causes of increased atmospheric CH4 over the last 5000 years. Quat. Sci. Rev. 20, 1769–1777 (2001)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Blunier, T. et al. Variations in atmospheric methane concentration during the Holocene epoch. Nature 374, 46–49 (1995)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Fischer, H. et al. Changing boreal methane sources and constant biomass burning during the last termination. Nature 452, 864–867 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Brook, E. J. et al. On the origin and timing of rapid changes in atmospheric methane during the last glacial period. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 14, 559–572 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Kutzbach, J. E. Monsoon climate of the Early Holocene: climate experiment with the Earth's orbital parameters for 9000 years ago. Science 214, 59–61 (1981)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Cohmap members. Climatic changes of the last 18,000 years: observations and model simulations. Science 241, 1043–1052 (1988)

  15. Ruddiman, W. F. The early anthropogenic hypothesis: challenges and responses. Rev. Geophys. 45, RG4001 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. Singarayer, J. S. & Valdes, P. J. High-latitude climate sensitivity to ice-sheet forcing over the last 120 kyr. Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 43–55 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Beerling, D. J. & Woodward, F. I. Vegetation and the Terrestrial Carbon Cycle: Modelling the First 400 Million Years (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  18. Valdes, P. J., Beerling, D. J. & Johnson, C. E. The ice age methane budget. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32 L02704 10.1029/2004GL021004 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Stocker, B., Strassmann, K. & Joos, F. Sensitivity of Holocene atmospheric CO2 and the modern carbon budget to early human land use: analyses with a process-based model. Biogeosci. Discuss. 7, 921–952 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Possell, M., Hewitt, C. N. & Beerling, D. J. The effects of glacial atmospheric CO2 concentrations and climate on isoprene emissions by vascular plants. Glob. Change Biol. 11, 60–69 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Arneth, A. et al. Why are estimates of global terrestrial isoprene emissions so similar (and why is this not so for monoterpenes)? Atmos. Chem. Phys. 8, 4605–4620 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Gordon, C. et al. The simulation of SST, sea ice extents and ocean heat transports in a version of the Hadley Centre coupled model without flux adjustments. Clim. Dyn. 16, 147–168 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Pope, V. D., Gallani, M. L., Rowntree, P. R. & Stratton, R. A. The impact of new physical parameterisations in the Hadley Centre climate model: HadAM3. Clim. Dyn. 16, 123–146 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Peltier, W. R. Global glacial isostasy and the surface of the iceage Earth: the ICE-5G (VM2) model and GRACE. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 32, 111–149 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Petit, J. R. et al. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Nature 399, 429–436 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Berger, A. & Loutre, M. F. Insolation values for the climate of the last 10 million years. Quat. Sci. Rev. 10, 297–317 (1991)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Woodward, F. I., Smith, T. M. & Emanuel, W. R. A global primary productivity and phytogeography model. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 9, 471–490 (1995)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Cao, M. K. S., Marshall, S. & Gregson, K. Global carbon exchange and methane emissions from natural wetlands: application of a process-based model. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 14399–14414 (1996)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Guenther, A. et al. A global model of natural volatile organic compound emissions. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 8873–8892 (1995)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Cattle, H. & Crossley, J. Modelling Arctic climate-change. Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. Lond. A 352, 201–213 (1995)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. Braconnot, P., Joussaume, S., de Noblet, N. & Ramstein, G. Mid-Holocene and Last Glacial Maximum African monsoon changes as simulated within the Paleoclimate Modelling Intercomparison Project. Glob. Planet. Change 26, 51–66 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. Braconnot, P. et al. Results of PMIP2 coupled simulations of the mid-Holocene and Last Glacial Maximum – Part 1: experiments and large-scale features. Clim. Past 3, 261–277 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Braconnot, P. et al. Results of PMIP2 coupled simulations of the Mid-Holocene and Last Glacial Maximum – Part 2: feedbacks with emphasis on the location of the ITCZ and mid- and high latitudes heat budget. Clim. Past 3, 279–296 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Monnin, E. et al. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the last glacial termination. Science 291, 112–114 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Indermühle, A. et al. Atmospheric CO2 concentration from 60 to 20 kyr BP from the Taylor Dome ice core, Antarctica. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 735–738 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  36. Parrenin, F. et al. The EDC3 age scale for the EPICA Dome C ice core. Clim. Past 3, 485–497 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Beerling, D. J., Woodward, F. I., Lomas, M. & Jenkins, A. J. Testing the responses of a dynamic global vegetation model to environmental change: a comparison of observations and predictions. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. Lett. 6, 439–450 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Parton, W. J. et al. Observations and modeling of biomass and soil organic matter dynamics for the grassland biome worldwide. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 7, 785–809 (1993)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Running, S. W. et al. A continuous satellite-derived measure of global terrestrial primary production. Bioscience 54, 547–560 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Sitch, S. et al. Evaluation of the terrestrial carbon cycle, future plant geography and climate-carbon cycle feedbacks using five Dynamic Global Vegetation Models (DGVMs). Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2015–2039 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  41. Hickler, T. et al. CO2 fertilization in temperate FACE experiments not representative of boreal and tropical forests. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 1531–1542 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  42. Woodward, F. I. & Kelly, C. K. Responses of global plant diversity capacity to changes in carbon dioxide concentration and climate. Ecol. Lett. 11, 1229–1237 (2008)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Yienger, J. & Levy, H. Empirical model of global soil and biogenic NOx emissions. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 11447–11464 (1995)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. Arneth, A. et al. CO2 inhibition of global terrestrial isoprene emissions: potential implications for atmospheric chemistry. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L18813 (2007).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  45. Collins, W. J., Stevenson, D., Johnson, C. & Derwent, R. Role of convection in determining the budget of odd hydrogen in the upper troposphere. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 26927–26941 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


J.S.S. and P.J.V. thank the BBC for commissioning the climate simulations for their TV series, The Incredible Human Journey. Thanks are also due to I. Woodward and M. Lomas for earlier SDGVM development. P.J.V. and D.J.B. acknowledge additional support through Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Awards and the Leverhulme Trust. J.S.S. thanks R. Bailey for comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.S.S. and P.J.V. performed the climate model simulations. P.J.V. performed initial analysis of methane emissions from experiment ALL. J.S.S. performed the main analysis, sensitivity experiments and led the writing of the paper with contributions from all other authors. P.F. and D.J.B. contributed expertise concerning methane emissions and the carbon cycle. D.J.B. and S.N. evolved the development of the vegetation and methane models.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joy S. Singarayer.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Text and Supplementary Figures 1-7 with legends. (PDF 366 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Singarayer, J., Valdes, P., Friedlingstein, P. et al. Late Holocene methane rise caused by orbitally controlled increase in tropical sources. Nature 470, 82–85 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing