Review Article | Published:

Palaeoclimate constraints on the impact of 2 °C anthropogenic warming and beyond

Nature Geosciencevolume 11pages474485 (2018) | Download Citation


Over the past 3.5 million years, there have been several intervals when climate conditions were warmer than during the pre-industrial Holocene. Although past intervals of warming were forced differently than future anthropogenic change, such periods can provide insights into potential future climate impacts and ecosystem feedbacks, especially over centennial-to-millennial timescales that are often not covered by climate model simulations. Our observation-based synthesis of the understanding of past intervals with temperatures within the range of projected future warming suggests that there is a low risk of runaway greenhouse gas feedbacks for global warming of no more than 2 °C. However, substantial regional environmental impacts can occur. A global average warming of 1–2 °C with strong polar amplification has, in the past, been accompanied by significant shifts in climate zones and the spatial distribution of land and ocean ecosystems. Sustained warming at this level has also led to substantial reductions of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, with sea-level increases of at least several metres on millennial timescales. Comparison of palaeo observations with climate model results suggests that, due to the lack of certain feedback processes, model-based climate projections may underestimate long-term warming in response to future radiative forcing by as much as a factor of two, and thus may also underestimate centennial-to-millennial-scale sea-level rise.

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Change history

  • Correction 18 July 2018

    In the version of this Review Article originally published, ref. 10 was mistakenly cited instead of ref. 107 at the end of the sentence: “This complexity of residual ice cover makes it likely that HTM warming was regional, rather than global, and its peak warmth thus had different timing in different locations.” In addition, for ref. 108, Scientific Reports was incorrectly given as the publication name; it should have been Scientific Data. These errors have now been corrected in the online versions.


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Financial support of the PAGES Warmer World Integrative Activity workshop by the Future Earth core project PAGES (Past Global Changes) and the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, is gratefully acknowledged. Additional funding by PAGES was provided to the plioVAR, PALSEA 2, QUIGS, the 2k network, C-peat, Global Paleofire 2 and OC3 PAGES working groups contributing to the Integrated Activity (see for an overview of all former and active PAGES working groups). We thank N. Rosenbloom for creating Fig. 2.

Author information


  1. Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

    • Hubertus Fischer
    • , Stéphane Affolter
    • , Fortunat Joos
    • , Christoph Nehrbass-Ahles
    • , Christoph C. Raible
    • , Thomas F. Stocker
    •  & Patricio A. Velasquez Alvárez
  2. Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

    • Hubertus Fischer
    • , Daniele Colombaroli
    • , Samuel L. Jaccard
    • , Stéphane Affolter
    • , Julia Gottschalk
    • , Fortunat Joos
    • , Katarzyna Marcisz
    • , Christoph Nehrbass-Ahles
    • , Christoph C. Raible
    • , Thomas F. Stocker
    • , Patricio A. Velasquez Alvárez
    • , Willy Tinner
    • , Hendrik Vogel
    •  & Heinz Wanner
  3. Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales Sydney, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Sydney, Australia

    • Katrin J. Meissner
  4. College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA

    • Alan C. Mix
    •  & Anders E. Carlson
  5. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Canberra, Australia

    • Nerilie J. Abram
  6. Bullard Laboratories, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Jacqueline Austermann
  7. Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, Germany

    • Victor Brovkin
  8. Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Emilie Capron
  9. British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, UK

    • Emilie Capron
    •  & Max D. Holloway
  10. Centre for Quaternary Research, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, Surrey, UK

    • Daniele Colombaroli
  11. Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

    • Daniele Colombaroli
    • , Katarzyna Marcisz
    •  & Willy Tinner
  12. Limnology Unit, Department of Biology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

    • Daniele Colombaroli
  13. Environnements et Paléoenvironnements Océaniques et Continentaux, EPOC, CNRS, Université de Bordeaux, Pessac, France

    • Anne-Laure Daniau
    • , Thibaut Caley
    • , Philippe Martinez
    •  & María F. Sánchez Goñi
  14. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, NY, USA

    • Kelsey A. Dyez
  15. MARUM - Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany

    • Thomas Felis
    • , Alessio Rovere
    • , Pepijn Bakker
    •  & Michal Kucera
  16. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

    • Sarah A. Finkelstein
  17. Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

    • Samuel L. Jaccard
    • , Julia Gottschalk
    •  & Hendrik Vogel
  18. Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom

    • Erin L. McClymont
  19. Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology, Bremen, Germany

    • Alessio Rovere
  20. Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany

    • Johannes Sutter
    •  & Paul Gierz
  21. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Eric W. Wolff
  22. International Foundation High Altitude Research Stations Jungfraujoch and Gornergrat, Bern, Switzerland

    • Stéphane Affolter
  23. Institute for Environmental Sciences and Dendrolab, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

    • Juan Antonio Ballesteros-Cánovas
    •  & Olga Churakova (Sidorova)
  24. Institute for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes - CNR, Venice, Italy

    • Carlo Barbante
  25. Department of Environmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics, Ca’Foscari University of Venice, Venice, Italy

    • Carlo Barbante
  26. Institute of Ecology and Geography, Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk, Russia

    • Olga Churakova (Sidorova)
  27. GNS Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand

    • Giuseppe Cortese
  28. Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada

    • Brian F. Cumming
  29. Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Basil A. S. Davis
  30. Centre de recherche en géochimie et géodynamique, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, Canada

    • Anne de Vernal
  31. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

    • Julien Emile-Geay
  32. Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA

    • Sherilyn C. Fritz
  33. Past Global Changes (PAGES), Bern, Switzerland

    • Marie-France Loutre
  34. School of Geographical Sciences and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

    • Daniel J. Lunt
    •  & Paul J. Valdes
  35. Laboratory of Wetland Ecology and Monitoring, Department of Biogeography and Palaeoecology, Faculty of Geographical and Geological Sciences, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland

    • Katarzyna Marcisz
  36. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

    • Jennifer R. Marlon
  37. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace (UMR8212 CEA-CNRS-UVSQ, Université Paris Saclay), Gif-sur-Yvette cédex, France

    • Valerie Masson-Delmotte
  38. Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, USA

    • Bette L. Otto-Bliesner
  39. Uni Research Climate, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway

    • Bjørg Risebrobakken
  40. École Pratique des Hautes Études, EPHE, PSL University, Paris, France

    • María F. Sánchez Goñi
  41. United States Global Change Research Program, National Coordination Office, Washington, DC, USA

    • Jennifer Saleem Arrigo
  42. Institute for Geosciences, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany

    • Michael Sarnthein
  43. Quaternary Sciences, Department of Geology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

    • Jesper Sjolte
  44. Nansen-Zhu International Research Centre, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Qing Yan
  45. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA

    • Zicheng Yu
  46. Institute for Peat and Mire Research, School of Geographical Sciences, Northeast Normal University, Changchun, China

    • Zicheng Yu
  47. Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Martin Ziegler
  48. Geological Institute, ETH Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

    • Martin Ziegler
  49. Laboratory for Earth Surface Processes, Department of Geography, Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University, Beijing, China

    • Liping Zhou


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The content of this paper is the result of a PAGES workshop taking place in Bern, Switzerland, in April 2017, which most of the authors attended. All authors contributed to the literature assessment and the discussion of the results. H.F., K.J.M. and A.C.M. developed the concept of the paper and compiled the paper with support by all co-authors. All co-authors contributed to the discussion of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Hubertus Fischer or Katrin J. Meissner or Alan C. Mix.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Material.

  2. Supplementary Tables

    Supplementary Tables 1–5 and 8–11.

  3. Supplementary Table 6

    Supplementary Table 6.

  4. Supplementary Table 7

    Supplementary Table 7.

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