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Delayed build-up of Arctic ice sheets during 400,000-year minima in insolation variability


Knowledge of the past variability of climate at high northern latitudes during astronomical analogues of the present interglacial1 may help to inform our understanding of future climate change. Unfortunately, long-term continuous records of ice-sheet variability in the Northern Hemisphere only are scarce because records of benthic 18O content represent an integrated signal of changes in ice volume in both polar regions2. However, variations in Northern Hemisphere ice sheets influence the Siberian High3 (an atmospheric pressure system), so variations in the East Asian winter monsoon (EAWM)—as recorded in the aeolian dust deposits on the Chinese Loess Plateau—can serve as a useful proxy of Arctic climate variability before the ice-core record begins. Here we present an EAWM proxy record using grain-size variations in two parallel loess sections representative of sequences across the whole of the Chinese Loess Plateau over the past 900,000 years. The results show that during periods of low eccentricity and precessional variability at approximately 400,000-year intervals, the grain-size-inferred intensity of the EAWM remains weak for up to 20,000 years after the end of the interglacial episode of high summer monsoon activity and strong pedogenesis. In contrast, there is a rapid increase in the EAWM after the end of most other interglacials. We conclude that, for both the 400,000-year interglacials, the weak EAWM winds maintain a mild, non-glacial climate at high northern latitudes for much longer than expected from the conventional loess and marine oxygen isotope records. During these times, the less-severe summer insolation minima at 65° N (ref. 4) would have suppressed ice and snow accumulation, leading to a weak Siberian High and, consequently, weak EAWM winds.

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Figure 1: Location map with the surface circulation over Eurasia in winter.
Figure 2: Comparison of the East Asian winter monsoon (EAWM) and summer monsoon (EASM) proxy records in loess with other palaeoclimatic data of the past 880 kyr.
Figure 3: Comparison of the stacked loess records of East Asian monsoon climate around the last five interglacial–glacial transitions.
Figure 4: Summer insolation during MIS 11–10 compared with present and future summer insolation.


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This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant 41172323), Ministry of Science and Technology (grant 2010CB950204), Ministry of Land and Resources (grant 201211077), and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Author information




Q.H. and L.W. designed the study. Q.H. and Y.S. undertook the field work. S.P. and Q.H. organized and supervised the grain-size measurement. Y.S. and Q.H. performed the magnetic susceptibility measurements. Q.H. and F.O. wrote the manuscript. All the authors contributed to the interpretation of the data and provided significant input to the final manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Qingzhen Hao or Frank Oldfield.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Data 1-4, additional references and Supplementary Figures 1-13. (PDF 2883 kb)

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Hao, Q., Wang, L., Oldfield, F. et al. Delayed build-up of Arctic ice sheets during 400,000-year minima in insolation variability. Nature 490, 393–396 (2012).

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