Past perspectives on the present era of abrupt Arctic climate change


Abrupt climate change is a striking feature of many climate records, particularly the warming events in Greenland ice cores. These abrupt and high-amplitude events were tightly coupled to rapid sea-ice retreat in the North Atlantic and Nordic Seas, and observational evidence shows they had global repercussions. In the present-day Arctic, sea-ice loss is also key to ongoing warming. This Perspective uses observations and climate models to place contemporary Arctic change into the context of past abrupt Greenland warmings. We find that warming rates similar to or higher than modern trends have only occurred during past abrupt glacial episodes. We argue that the Arctic is currently experiencing an abrupt climate change event, and that climate models underestimate this ongoing warming.

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Fig. 1: Trends in Arctic temperature and sea-ice cover.
Fig. 2: Greenland temperature record over the past 60,000 years.
Fig. 3: Comparison of reconstructed and modelled Greenland abrupt changes.
Fig. 4: Past and future rapid temperature trends.
Fig. 5: Arctic temperature trends under different forcing scenarios.
Fig. 6: Evidence for ongoing Atlantification in the Arctic.

Data availability

For Fig. 1, The ERA-Interm data are available from (ref. 70). For Fig. 2, NGRIP data are from (ref. 71). For Figs. 3 and 4, the NorESM Marine Isotope Stage 3 simulation is available through the Norwegian Research Data Archive: (ref. 48). The NorESM RCP 8.5 simulation is available from the CMIP5 ESGF archive: (ref. 72). The data of 40-year near-surface air temperature (TAS) trend to make Fig. 5 are available at: (ref. 73). Data for Supplementary Fig. 1 are available at: (ref. 74). The model data for calculation of these 40-year TAS trends are downloaded from: (ref. 72). Files to reproduce Figs. 15 can be found in Supplementary Data.

Code availability

Code used to generate the figures can be downloaded from the project website: and from GitHub: Files to reproduce Figs. 15 can be found in Supplementary Data.


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We acknowledge funding from a Synergy Grant from the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC (grant agreement 610055) as part of the ice2ice project. We thank our ice2ice colleagues for fruitful discussions and encouragement. E.C. acknowledges support from the Chronoclimate project funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. For CMIP, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Author information




E.J., J.H.C., T.D., K.H.N. and B.M.V. developed the synopsis and drafted the manuscript with input from P.L.L. C.G., K.H.N., M.S., B.M.V., S.Y. and M.S. provided the figures. M.B., C.G., E.C., M.F.J., H.A.K., H.S. and E.S. provided model and observational data. All authors contributed to the writing and revision of the text. E.J. coordinated the drafting of the manuscript and the final version.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Eystein Jansen.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text 1 and 2, Figs. 1 and 2, and Tables 1 and 2.

Supplementary Data 1

Source data for Fig. 1. Raw data from ECWMF ERA-Interim.

Supplementary Data 2

Source data for Fig. 2. Time series data in Excel format.

Supplementary Data 3

Source data for Fig. 3. Time series data in text format.

Supplementary Data 4

Source data for Fig. 4. Model output data in NetCDF format.

Supplementary Data 5

Source data for Fig. 5. Time series from models in ascii format.

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Jansen, E., Christensen, J.H., Dokken, T. et al. Past perspectives on the present era of abrupt Arctic climate change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 714–721 (2020).

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