Antarctic temperature at orbital timescales controlled by local summer duration

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During the late Pleistocene epoch, proxies for Southern Hemisphere climate from the Antarctic ice cores vary nearly in phase with Northern Hemisphere insolation intensity at the precession and obliquity timescales. This coherence has led to the suggestion that Northern Hemisphere insolation controls Antarctic climate. However, it is unclear what physical mechanisms would tie southern climate to northern insolation. Here we call on radiative equilibrium estimates to show that Antarctic climate could instead respond to changes in the duration of local summer. Simple radiative equilibrium dictates that warmer annual average atmospheric temperatures occur as a result of a longer summer, as opposed to a more intense one, because temperature is more sensitive to insolation when the atmosphere is cooler. Furthermore, we show that a single-column atmospheric model reproduces this radiative equilibrium effect when forced exclusively by local Antarctic insolation, generating temperature variations that are coherent and in phase with proxies of Antarctic atmospheric temperature and surface conditions. We conclude that the duration of Southern Hemisphere summer is more likely to control Antarctic climate than the intensity of Northern Hemisphere summer with which it (often misleadingly) covaries. In our view, near interhemispheric climate symmetry at the obliquity and precession timescales arises from a northern response to local summer intensity and a southern response to local summer duration.

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Figure 1: Different measures of insolation covary with one another.
Figure 2: The seasonal cycle in Antarctic insolation and atmospheric temperature.
Figure 3: Temperature variability in the Antarctic over the past 350 kyr.
Figure 4: Coherence and phase between proxy and model estimates of mean annual atmospheric temperature at Dome F.


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This manuscript benefited from comments by R. Alley, D. Barrell, P. Blossey, I. Eisenman, J. Gebbie, A. Giese, K. Kawamura, R. Pierrehumbert, A. Stine and J. Severinghaus. We are also grateful to K. Kawamura for providing the δO2/N2 record and to C. Walker and D. Abbot for technical assistance. P.H. received support from the Comer Science and Education Foundation (CSEF) and NSF award 0645936. G.D. is supported by NOAA and CSEF.

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Correspondence to Peter Huybers.

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Huybers, P., Denton, G. Antarctic temperature at orbital timescales controlled by local summer duration. Nature Geosci 1, 787–792 (2008) doi:10.1038/ngeo311

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