Letter | Published:

Evolution of global temperature over the past two million years

Nature volume 538, pages 226228 (13 October 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

Reconstructions of Earth’s past climate strongly influence our understanding of the dynamics and sensitivity of the climate system. Yet global temperature has been reconstructed for only a few isolated windows of time1,2, and continuous reconstructions across glacial cycles remain elusive. Here I present a spatially weighted proxy reconstruction of global temperature over the past 2 million years estimated from a multi-proxy database of over 20,000 sea surface temperature point reconstructions. Global temperature gradually cooled until roughly 1.2 million years ago and cooling then stalled until the present. The cooling trend probably stalled before the beginning of the mid-Pleistocene transition3, and pre-dated the increase in the maximum size of ice sheets around 0.9 million years ago4,5,6. Thus, global cooling may have been a pre-condition for, but probably is not the sole causal mechanism of, the shift to quasi-100,000-year glacial cycles at the mid-Pleistocene transition. Over the past 800,000 years, polar amplification (the amplification of temperature change at the poles relative to global temperature change) has been stable over time, and global temperature and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have been closely coupled across glacial cycles. A comparison of the new temperature reconstruction with radiative forcing from greenhouse gases estimates an Earth system sensitivity of 9 degrees Celsius (range 7 to 13 degrees Celsius, 95 per cent credible interval) change in global average surface temperature per doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide over millennium timescales. This result suggests that stabilization at today’s greenhouse gas levels may already commit Earth to an eventual total warming of 5 degrees Celsius (range 3 to 7 degrees Celsius, 95 per cent credible interval) over the next few millennia as ice sheets, vegetation and atmospheric dust continue to respond to global warming.

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Acknowledgements

I thank S. Schneider, C. Field, C. Tebaldi, R. Dunbar, K. Caldeira, C. Warshaw, H. Elderfield and R. Samworth for advice and feedback. I am indebted to many scientists for supplying their proxy data records (see Extended Data Tables 1–3), and to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and PANGAEA. This study was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

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  1. 1Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Carolyn W. Snyder

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Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carolyn W. Snyder.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks E. J. Rohling and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Methods

    This file contains the R code for key methods described in the paper.

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    Supplementary Data

    This file shows the new global average surface temperature (GAST) reconstruction at 2.5%, 5%, 25%, 50%, 75%, 95%, and 97.5% likelihood values and the 61 sea-surface temperature reconstructions used to create the GAST reconstruction, including a detailed summary table.

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