Multiple causes of the Younger Dryas cold period

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The Younger Dryas cooling event disrupted the overall warming trend in the North Atlantic region during the last deglaciation1,2,3,4,5,6. Climate change during the Younger Dryas was abrupt7,8,9, and thus provides insights into the sensitivity of the climate system to perturbations. The sudden Younger Dryas cooling has traditionally been attributed to a shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation by meltwater discharges10,11,12,13. However, alternative explanations such as strong negative radiative forcing14 and a shift in atmospheric circulation15 have also been offered. Here we investigate the importance of these different forcings in coupled climate model experiments constrained by data assimilation. We find that the Younger Dryas climate signal as registered in proxy evidence is best simulated using a combination of processes: a weakened Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, moderate negative radiative forcing and an altered atmospheric circulation. We conclude that none of the individual mechanisms alone provide a plausible explanation for the Younger Dryas cold period. We suggest that the triggers for abrupt climate changes such as the Younger Dryas are more complex than suggested so far, and that studies on the response of the climate system to perturbations should account for this complexity.

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Figure 1: Simulated temperature anomalies compared to proxy-based estimates (in °C).
Figure 2: Simulated anomalies for the COMBINED experiment relative to the 13 ka reference run.
Figure 3: Simulated time series of key variables.


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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no. 243908, ‘Past4Future. Climate change—Learning from the past climate’. H.R. was supported by a visiting professor grant of the Université catholique de Louvain. H.G. is Senior Research Associate with the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (FRS—FNRS-Belgium). D.M.R. is supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and by the French CNRS.

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All authors contributed substantially to this work. H.R. and H.G. conceived the project. H.R., A.M., H.G. and P.M. designed and performed the LOVECLIM experiments. H.R., A.M. and H.G. analysed the model results. O.H. provided proxy-based reconstructions. D.M.R. provided unpublished initial conditions and forcings for the experiments. P.J.V. and K.H.N. performed additional experiments with other models. The manuscript was written by H.R., with input from all other authors.

Correspondence to Hans Renssen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Renssen, H., Mairesse, A., Goosse, H. et al. Multiple causes of the Younger Dryas cold period. Nature Geosci 8, 946–949 (2015) doi:10.1038/ngeo2557

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