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

  • Nature volume 554, pages 356359 (15 February 2018)
  • doi:10.1038/nature25454
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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.

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Change history

  • Corrected online 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)”.


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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


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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).


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