Letter | Published:

Insolation-driven 100,000-year glacial cycles and hysteresis of ice-sheet volume

Nature volume 500, pages 190193 (08 August 2013) | Download Citation


The growth and reduction of Northern Hemisphere ice sheets over the past million years is dominated by an approximately 100,000-year periodicity and a sawtooth pattern1,2 (gradual growth and fast termination). Milankovitch theory proposes that summer insolation at high northern latitudes drives the glacial cycles3, and statistical tests have demonstrated that the glacial cycles are indeed linked to eccentricity, obliquity and precession cycles4,5. Yet insolation alone cannot explain the strong 100,000-year cycle, suggesting that internal climatic feedbacks may also be at work4,5,6,7. Earlier conceptual models, for example, showed that glacial terminations are associated with the build-up of Northern Hemisphere ‘excess ice’5,8,9,10, but the physical mechanisms underpinning the 100,000-year cycle remain unclear. Here we show, using comprehensive climate and ice-sheet models, that insolation and internal feedbacks between the climate, the ice sheets and the lithosphere–asthenosphere system explain the 100,000-year periodicity. The responses of equilibrium states of ice sheets to summer insolation show hysteresis11,12,13, with the shape and position of the hysteresis loop playing a key part in determining the periodicities of glacial cycles. The hysteresis loop of the North American ice sheet is such that after inception of the ice sheet, its mass balance remains mostly positive through several precession cycles, whose amplitudes decrease towards an eccentricity minimum. The larger the ice sheet grows and extends towards lower latitudes, the smaller is the insolation required to make the mass balance negative. Therefore, once a large ice sheet is established, a moderate increase in insolation is sufficient to trigger a negative mass balance, leading to an almost complete retreat of the ice sheet within several thousand years. This fast retreat is governed mainly by rapid ablation due to the lowered surface elevation resulting from delayed isostatic rebound14,15,16, which is the lithosphere–asthenosphere response. Carbon dioxide is involved, but is not determinative, in the evolution of the 100,000-year glacial cycles.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    et al. The Last Glacial Maximum. Science 325, 710–714 (2009)

  2. 2.

    , & Variations in Earth’s orbit - pacemaker of ice ages. Science 194, 1121–1132 (1976)

  3. 3.

    Kanon der Erdbestrahlung und seine Anwendung auf das Eiszeitproblem (R. Serbian Acad., 1941)

  4. 4.

    Links between eccentricity forcing and the 100,000-year glacial cycle. Nature Geosci. 3, 349–352 (2010)

  5. 5.

    Combined obliquity and precession pacing of late Pleistocene deglaciations. Nature 480, 229–232 (2011)

  6. 6.

    , & The late Quaternary glaciations as the response of a three-component feedback system to Earth-orbital forcing. J. Atmos. Sci. 41, 3380–3389 (1984)

  7. 7.

    , , & Consequences of pacing the Pleistocene 100 kyr ice ages by nonlinear phase locking to Milankovitch forcing. Paleoceanography 21, PA4206 (2006)

  8. 8.

    The timing of major climate terminations. Paleoceanography 12, 577–585 (1997)

  9. 9.

    The timing of Pleistocene glaciations from a simple multiple-state climate model. Nature 391, 378–381 (1998)

  10. 10.

    & Amplitude and phase of glacial cycles from a conceptual model. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 214, 243–250 (2003)

  11. 11.

    & On the initiation of ice sheets. Ann. Glaciol. 18, 203–207 (1993)

  12. 12.

    & Multistability and hysteresis in the climate-cryosphere system under orbital forcing. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L21717 (2005)

  13. 13.

    & Hysteresis in Cenozoic Antarctic ice-sheet variations. Global Planet. Change 45, 9–21 (2005)

  14. 14.

    Model experiments on the 100,000-yr glacial cycle. Nature 287, 430–432 (1980)

  15. 15.

    A simple ice-sheet model yields realistic 100 kyr glacial cycles. Nature 296, 334–338 (1982)

  16. 16.

    , & Simulations of continental ice sheet growth over the last glacial-interglacial cycle: experiments with a one level seasonal energy balance model including seasonal ice albedo feedback. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 98, 37–55 (1992)

  17. 17.

    The 100,000-year ice-age cycle identified and found to lag temperature, carbon dioxide, and orbital eccentricity. Science 289, 1897–1902 (2000)

  18. 18.

    & The Antarctic ice sheet and the triggering of deglaciations. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 227, 263–271 (2004)

  19. 19.

    & Coupled energy-balance ice-sheet model simulations of the glacial cycle: a possible connection between terminations and terrigenous dust. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 14269–14289 (1995)

  20. 20.

    & The role of orbital forcing, carbon dioxide and regolith in 100 kyr glacial cycles. Clim. Past 7, 1415–1425 (2011)

  21. 21.

    , & Deglacial rapid sea level rises caused by ice-sheet saddle collapses. Nature 487, 219–222 (2012)

  22. 22.

    , & Climatic conditions for modelling the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets throughout the ice age cycle. Clim. Past 3, 423–438 (2007)

  23. 23.

    et al. Northern Hemisphere forcing of climatic cycles in Antarctica over the past 360,000 years. Nature 448, 912–916 (2007)

  24. 24.

    , & Sensitivity of the LLN climate model to the astronomical and CO2 forcings over the last 200 ky. Clim. Dyn. 14, 615–629 (1998)

  25. 25.

    , & Effects of physical changes in the ocean on the atmospheric pCO2: glacial-interglacial cycles. Clim. Dyn. 35, 713–719 (2009)

  26. 26.

    & On the nature of lead-lag relationships during glacial-interglacial climate transitions. Quat. Sci. Rev. 28, 3361–3378 (2009)

  27. 27.

    et al. Northern Hemisphere forcing of Southern Hemisphere climate during the last deglaciation. Nature 494, 81–85 (2013)

  28. 28.

    , , & Vegetation dynamics amplifies precessional forcing. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L09709 (2006)

  29. 29.

    & Basal temperature evolution of North American ice sheets and implications for the 100-kyr cycle. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 2214 (2002)

  30. 30.

    & Pliocene-Pleistocene stack of 57 globally distributed benthic δ18O records. Paleoceanography 20, PA1003 (2005)

  31. 31.

    A retrospective look at coupled ice sheet-climate modeling. Clim. Change 100, 173–194 (2010)

  32. 32.

    et al. Evaluation of climate models using palaeoclimatic data. Nature Clim. Change 2, 417–424 (2012)

  33. 33.

    Parameterization of melt rate and surface temperature on the Greenland ice sheet. Polarforschung 59, 113–128 (1991)

  34. 34.

    Long-term variations of daily insolation and quaternary climatic changes. J. Atmos. Sci. 35, 53–74 (1978)

  35. 35.

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

  36. 36.

    , , , & Large-scale instabilities of the Laurentide ice sheet simulated in a fully coupled climate-system model. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 2216 (2002)

  37. 37.

    & A global digital map of sediment thickness. Eos Trans. AGU 78, F483 (1997)

  38. 38.

    in Milankovitch and Climate: Understanding the Response to Astronomical Forcing Pt 2 (eds , , , & ) 541–564 (Reidel, 1984)

  39. 39.

    & Modelling West Antarctic ice sheet growth and collapse through the past five million years. Nature 458, 329–332 (2009)

  40. 40.

    & Effects of water load on geophysical signals due to glacial rebound and implications for mantle viscosity. Earth Planets Space 53, 1121–1135 (2001)

  41. 41.

    Interaction between Northern Hemisphere Ice Sheet and Solid Earth Throughout the Ice Age Cycle [in Japanese]. MSc thesis, Univ. Tokyo. (2008)

  42. 42.

    , , & Effect of isostatic rebound on modelled ice volume variations during the last 200 kyr. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 184, 623–633 (2001)

Download references


Discussions with numerous people including M. Kimoto, J. Hargreaves, M. Yoshimori, J. Annan, F.-F. Jin and W.-L. Chan contributed to this work. M. Ichino and T. Segawa provided technical support. We thank the MIROC group for continuous development and support of the MIROC GCM. The numerical experiments were carried out on the NIES supercomputer system (NEC SX-8R/128M16) and the JAMSTEC Earth Simulator. This research was supported by JSPS KAKENHI grants 25241005, 22101005 and 21671001, the Global COE Program grant “From the Earth to ‘Earths’”, MEXT, Japan, and the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund (S-10) of the Ministry of the Environment, Japan.

Author information


  1. Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, The University of Tokyo, Kashiwa 277-8568, Japan

    • Ayako Abe-Ouchi
    • , Jun’ichi Okuno
    •  & Heinz Blatter
  2. Research Institute for Global Change, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, Yokohama 236-0001, Japan

    • Ayako Abe-Ouchi
    • , Fuyuki Saito
    • , Jun’ichi Okuno
    •  & Kunio Takahashi
  3. National Institute of Polar Research, Tachikawa, Tokyo 190-8518, Japan

    • Ayako Abe-Ouchi
    • , Kenji Kawamura
    •  & Jun’ichi Okuno
  4. Institute of Biogeosciences, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, Yokosuka 237-0061, Japan

    • Kenji Kawamura
  5. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Maureen E. Raymo
  6. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zurich, CH-8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Heinz Blatter


  1. Search for Ayako Abe-Ouchi in:

  2. Search for Fuyuki Saito in:

  3. Search for Kenji Kawamura in:

  4. Search for Maureen E. Raymo in:

  5. Search for Jun’ichi Okuno in:

  6. Search for Kunio Takahashi in:

  7. Search for Heinz Blatter in:


A.A.-O. designed the research and experiments, and wrote the manuscript with F.S., K.K., M.E.R. and H.B. A.A.-O. and F.S. developed the numerical model, performed the experiments and analysed the results with K.T., K.K. and H.B. K.K. provided the ice-core data, and J.O. provided the Earth model for glacial isostatic rebound. All authors discussed the results and provided inputs on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ayako Abe-Ouchi.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1-6 and Supplementary References.


  1. 1.

    Simulated ice sheet change for the last 400 kyr with the IcIES-MIROC model

    This animation shows an oblique view of the model Northern Hemisphere ice sheets (standard case shown in Fig. 1d) computed every 1000 years during the last 400 kyr, together with the evolution of the ice volume. The 100 kyr glacial cycles and the fast terminations at the end of each glacial cycle are the prominently visible patterns.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


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.