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The spatial and temporal complexity of the Holocene thermal maximum


The Holocene thermal maximum, a period of relatively warm climate between 11,000 and 5,000 years ago1,2, is most clearly recorded in the middle and high latitudes2,3 of the Northern Hemisphere, where it is generally associated with the local orbitally forced summer insolation maximum. However, proxy-based reconstructions have shown that both the timing and magnitude of the warming vary substantially between different regions2,3,4, suggesting the involvement of extra feedbacks and forcings. Here, we simulate the Holocene thermal maximum in a coupled global ocean–atmosphere–vegetation model. We find that before 7,000 years ago, summers were substantially cooler over regions directly influenced by the presence of the Laurentide ice sheet, whereas other regions of the Northern Hemisphere were dominated by orbital forcing. Our simulations suggest that the cool conditions arose from a combination of the inhibition of Labrador Sea deep convection by the flux of meltwater from the ice sheet, which weakened northward heat transport by the ocean, and the high surface albedo of the ice sheet. We thus conclude that interglacial climate is highly sensitive to relatively small changes in ice-sheet configuration.

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Figure 1: Evolution of summer temperature according to model simulations and proxy-based reconstructions.
Figure 2: Simulated early Holocene summer temperatures.
Figure 3: Simulated HTM timing.


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The authors thank M. W. Kerwin for making his data set available for this study.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors collaborated on the text. H.R. and D.M.R. designed the model boundary conditions, H.R. carried out the model simulations, and H.R., D.M.R., H.G. and T.F. analysed the climate model results. H.S. and O.H. compiled records for the temperature reconstructions.

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Correspondence to H. Renssen.

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Renssen, H., Seppä, H., Heiri, O. et al. The spatial and temporal complexity of the Holocene thermal maximum. Nature Geosci 2, 411–414 (2009).

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