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Causal feedbacks in climate change



The statistical association between temperature and greenhouse gases over glacial cycles is well documented1, but causality behind this correlation remains difficult to extract directly from the data. A time lag of CO2 behind Antarctic temperature—originally thought to hint at a driving role for temperature2,3—is absent4,5 at the last deglaciation, but recently confirmed at the last ice age inception6 and the end of the earlier termination II (ref. 7). We show that such variable time lags are typical for complex nonlinear systems such as the climate, prohibiting straightforward use of correlation lags to infer causation. However, an insight from dynamical systems theory8 now allows us to circumvent the classical challenges of unravelling causation from multivariate time series. We build on this insight to demonstrate directly from ice-core data that, over glacial–interglacial timescales, climate dynamics are largely driven by internal Earth system mechanisms, including a marked positive feedback effect from temperature variability on greenhouse-gas concentrations.

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Figure 1: Causation inferred from time series of insolation, temperature and GHGs.
Figure 2: Correlation of cross-mapped versus observed values as a function of the length of the time series.
Figure 3: Time displacements maximizing CCM skill corresponding to causal relationships indicated above the bars.


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M.S. and E.H.v.N. are supported by an ERC advanced grant. This work was carried out under the program of the Netherlands Earth System Science Centre (NESSC). T.M.L. is supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award and the European Commission (ENB.2013.6.1-3) HELIX project. G.S. and H.Y. were supported by National Science Foundation (Grant No. DEB-1020372). E.D. and H.Y. are supported by National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships and E.D. also by the Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results Fellowship. G.S. was further supported by NSF-NOAA Comparative Analysis of Marine Ecosystem Organization (CAMEO) program Grant NA08OAR4320894/CAMEO, by the Sugihara Family Trust, the Deutsche Bank-Jameson Complexity Studies Fund, the McQuown Chair in Natural Science, and DoD/SERDP.

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M.S. and E.H.v.N. conceived the research. All authors contributed to the design of the research. E.H.v.N. and H.Y. analysed the data. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Egbert H. van Nes or George Sugihara.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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van Nes, E., Scheffer, M., Brovkin, V. et al. Causal feedbacks in climate change. Nature Clim Change 5, 445–448 (2015).

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