Letter | Published:

Global patterns of declining temperature variability from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene

Nature volume 554, pages 356359 (15 February 2018) | Download Citation

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 14 March 2018

This article has been updated


Changes in climate variability are as important for society to address as are changes in mean climate1. Contrasting temperature variability during the Last Glacial Maximum and the Holocene can provide insights into the relationship between the mean state of the climate and its variability2,3. However, although glacial–interglacial changes in variability have been quantified for Greenland2, a global view remains elusive. Here we use a network of marine and terrestrial temperature proxies to show that temperature variability decreased globally by a factor of four as the climate warmed by 3–8 degrees Celsius from the Last Glacial Maximum (around 21,000 years ago) to the Holocene epoch (the past 11,500 years). This decrease had a clear zonal pattern, with little change in the tropics (by a factor of only 1.6–2.8) and greater change in the mid-latitudes of both hemispheres (by a factor of 3.3–14). By contrast, Greenland ice-core records show a reduction in temperature variability by a factor of 73, suggesting influences beyond local temperature or a decoupling of atmospheric and global surface temperature variability for Greenland. The overall pattern of reduced variability can be explained by changes in the meridional temperature gradient, a mechanism that points to further decreases in temperature variability in a warmer future.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Change history

  • 14 March 2018

    Please see accompanying Corrigendum (http://doi.org/10.1038/nature25998). In this Letter, in the legend of Fig. 3, “Red and green shading” has been corrected to “Green and red shading”. In the Methods subsection ‘Potential effect of ecological adaption and bioturbational mixing on marine variance ratios’, the phrase “alkenone-based (nine sites) and the Mg/Ca of planktic foraminifera G. ruber (six sites)” has been corrected to “alkenone-based (eight sites) and the Mg/Ca of planktic foraminifera G. ruber (seven sites)”.


  1. 1.

    & Extreme events in a changing climate: variability is more important than averages. Clim. Change 21, 289–302 (1992)

  2. 2.

    , & Contrasting atmospheric and climate dynamics of the last-glacial and Holocene periods. Nature 379, 810–812 (1996)

  3. 3.

    & Contrasting scaling properties of interglacial and glacial climates. Nat. Commun. 7, 10951 (2016)

  4. 4.

    IPCC. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013)

  5. 5.

    , & Perception of climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, E2415–E2423 (2012)

  6. 6.

    & Frequent summer temperature extremes reflect changes in the mean, not the variance. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, E546 (2013)

  7. 7.

    , , , & No increase in global temperature variability despite changing regional patterns. Nature 500, 327–330 (2013)

  8. 8.

    & A global perspective on Last Glacial Maximum to Holocene climate change. Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 1801–1816 (2010)

  9. 9.

    & A new global reconstruction of temperature changes at the Last Glacial Maximum. Clim. Past 9, 367–376 (2013)

  10. 10.

    MARGO Project Members. Constraints on the magnitude and patterns of ocean cooling at the Last Glacial Maximum. Nat. Geosci. 2, 127–132 (2009)

  11. 11.

    & El Niño–Southern Oscillation extrema in the Holocene and Last Glacial Maximum. Paleoceanography 27, PA4208 (2012)

  12. 12.

    NGRIP members. High-resolution record of Northern Hemisphere climate extending into the last interglacial period. Nature 431, 147–151 (2004)

  13. 13.

    et al. GRIP deuterium excess reveals rapid and orbital-scale changes in Greenland moisture origin. Science 309, 118–121 (2005)

  14. 14.

    , , & Climate change and evolving human diversity in Europe during the last glacial. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 359, 243–254 (2004)

  15. 15.

    , & Was agriculture impossible during the Pleistocene but mandatory during the Holocene? A climate change hypothesis. Am. Antiq. 66, 387–411 (2001)

  16. 16.

    et al. High variability of Greenland surface temperature over the past 4000 years estimated from trapped air in an ice core. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L21501 (2011)

  17. 17.

    & Ocean surface temperature variability: large model–data differences at decadal and longer periods. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 16682–16687 (2014)

  18. 18.

    et al. Validity of the temperature reconstruction from water isotopes in ice cores. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 26471–26487 (1997)

  19. 19.

    et al. Central West Antarctica among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth. Nat. Geosci. 6, 139–145 (2013)

  20. 20.

    et al. Comparing proxies for the reconstruction of LGM sea-surface conditions in the northern North Atlantic. Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 2820–2834 (2006)

  21. 21.

    , & Physics of changes in synoptic midlatitude temperature variability. J. Clim. 28, 2312–2331 (2015)

  22. 22.

    , , & Robust future changes in temperature variability under greenhouse gas forcing and the relationship with thermal advection. J. Clim. 29, 2221–2236 (2016)

  23. 23.

    Stochastic climate models part I. Theory. Tellus 28, 473–485 (1976)

  24. 24.

    , & Spatiotemporal long-range persistence in earth’s temperature field: analysis of stochastic–diffusive energy balance models. J. Clim. 28, 8379–8395 (2015)

  25. 25.

    & Unstable AMOC during glacial intervals and millennial variability: the role of mean sea ice extent. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 429, 60–68 (2015)

  26. 26.

    et al. Past and future polar amplification of climate change: climate model intercomparisons and ice-core constraints. Clim. Dyn. 26, 513–529 (2006)

  27. 27.

    , , & Abrupt climate shifts in Greenland due to displacements of the sea ice edge. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L19702 (2005)

  28. 28.

    & Sea ice and dynamical controls on preindustrial and Last Glacial Maximum accumulation in central Greenland. J. Clim. 27, 8902–8917 (2014)

  29. 29.

    , & Synchronicity of Antarctic temperatures and local solar insolation on orbital timescales. Nature 471, 91–94 (2011)

  30. 30.

    Abrupt climate change: an alternative view. Quat. Res. 65, 191–203 (2006)

  31. 31.

    et al. North Atlantic forcing of tropical Indian Ocean climate. Nature 509, 76–80 (2014)

  32. 32.

    et al. Synchronization of the NGRIP, GRIP, and GISP2 ice cores across MIS 2 and palaeoclimatic implications. Quat. Sci. Rev. 27, 18–28 (2008)

  33. 33.

    et al. Holocene thinning of the Greenland ice sheet. Nature 461, 385–388 (2009)

  34. 34.

    et al. Temperature and accumulation at the Greenland Summit: comparison of high-resolution isotope profiles and satellite passive microwave brightness temperature trends. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 9165–9177 (1995)

  35. 35.

    & Records of climatic change in the Canadian Arctic: towards calibrating oxygen isotope data with geothermal data. Global Planet. Change 11, 127–138 (1995)

  36. 36.

    , , , & Calibration of the δ18O isotopic paleothermometer for central Greenland, using borehole temperatures. J. Glaciol. 40, 341–349 (1994)

  37. 37.

    & Temperature, accumulation, and ice sheet elevation in central Greenland through the last deglacial transition. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 26383–26396 (1997)

  38. 38.

    et al. The δ18O record along the Greenland Ice Core Project deep ice core and the problem of possible Eemian climatic instability. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 26397–26410 (1997)

  39. 39.

    et al. Modeling the water isotopes in Greenland precipitation 1959–2001 with the meso-scale model REMO-iso. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D18105 (2011)

  40. 40.

    , , & Greenland palaeotemperatures derived from GRIP bore hole temperature and ice core isotope profiles. Tellus B 47, 624–629 (1995)

  41. 41.

    et al. Large arctic temperature change at the Wisconsin-Holocene glacial transition. Science 270, 455–458 (1995)

  42. 42.

    et al. Temperature reconstruction from 10 to 120 kyr b2k from the NGRIP ice core. Clim. Past 10, 887–902 (2014)

  43. 43.

    Magnitude of isotope/temperature scaling for interpretation of central Antarctic ice cores. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 4361 (2003)

  44. 44.

    et al. A review of Antarctic surface snow isotopic composition: observations, atmospheric circulation, and isotopic modeling. J. Clim. 21, 3359–3387 (2008)

  45. 45.

    et al. Late glacial stage and Holocene tropical ice core records from Huascarán, Peru. Science 269, 46–50 (1995)

  46. 46.

    , & Calibration of Mg/Ca thermometry in planktonic foraminifera from a sediment trap time series. Paleoceanography 18, 1050 (2003)

  47. 47.

    , , , & Calibration of the alkenone paleotemperature index U37K′ based on core-tops from the eastern South Atlantic and the global ocean (60° N–60° S). Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 62, 1757–1772 (1998)

  48. 48.

    & Flat meridional temperature gradient in the early Eocene in the subsurface rather than surface ocean. Nat. Geosci. 9, 606–610 (2016)

  49. 49.

    The Analysis of Time Series: An Introduction 6th edn (Chapman & Hall/CRC, 2004)

  50. 50.

    , & Stratigraphic noise in time series derived from ice cores. Ann. Glaciol. 7, 76–83 (1985)

  51. 51.

    et al. Understanding the climatic signal in the water stable isotope records from the NEEM shallow firn/ice cores in northwest Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D06108 (2011)

  52. 52.

    , , , & Constraints on post-depositional isotope modifications in East Antarctic firn from analysing temporal changes of isotope profiles. Cryosphere 11, 2175–2188 (2017)

  53. 53.

    in North America and Adjacent Oceans during the Last Deglaciation (eds & ) 111–135 (Geological Society of America, 1987)

  54. 54.

    Extant Planktic Foraminifera and the Physical Environment in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans: An atlas based on CLIMAP and Levitus (1982) data. Technical Report (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule und Universität Zürich, 1996)

  55. 55.

    & Vertical mixing in pelagic sediments. J. Mar. Res. 26, 134–143 (1968)

  56. 56.

    et al. Transient simulation of last deglaciation with a new mechanism for Bølling–Allerød warming. Science 325, 310–314 (2009)

  57. 57.

    & High-resolution record of late glacial and deglacial sea ice changes in Fram Strait corroborates ice–ocean interactions during abrupt climate shifts. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 403, 446–455 (2014)

  58. 58.

    , , , & Sea ice and millennial-scale climate variability in the Nordic seas 90 kyr ago to present. Nat. Commun. 7, 12247 (2016)

Download references


This study was supported by the Initiative and Networking Fund of the Helmholtz Association grant no. VG-900NH. K.R. acknowledges funding by the German Science Foundation (DFG, code RE 3994/1-1). This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 716092). We acknowledge P. Huybers, L. Sime, M. Holloway and T. Kunz for comments on the manuscript. We thank all original data contributors who made their proxy data available, and acknowledge the World Climate Research Programmes Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. The US Department of Energy Programme for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provided coordinating support for CMIP5 and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. The PMIP3 data archives are supported by CEA and CNRS.

Author information


  1. Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Telegrafenberg A43, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • Kira Rehfeld
    • , Thomas Münch
    • , Sze Ling Ho
    •  & Thomas Laepple
  2. British Antarctic Survey, High Cross, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • Kira Rehfeld
  3. Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Potsdam, Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 24-25, 14476 Potsdam, Germany

    • Thomas Münch
  4. University of Bergen and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Allégaten 41, 5007 Bergen, Norway

    • Sze Ling Ho


  1. Search for Kira Rehfeld in:

  2. Search for Thomas Münch in:

  3. Search for Sze Ling Ho in:

  4. Search for Thomas Laepple in:


K.R. and T.L. designed the research; T.M. established the ice database and signal-to-noise ratio correction. S.L.H. established the marine database. K.R. and T.L. developed the methodology. K.R. performed the data analysis and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. K.R., T.M., S.L.H. and T.L. contributed to the interpretation and to the preparation of the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kira Rehfeld.

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

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This spread sheet contains a README (Tab. 1), metadata information for all used proxy data (Tab. 2), references for the proxy data (Tab. 3) and the proxy data (Tabs 4-103).

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.