An ice–climate oscillatory framework for Dansgaard–Oeschger cycles

Abstract

Intermediate glacial states were characterized by large temperature changes in Greenland and the North Atlantic, referred to as Dansgaard–Oeschger (D–O) variability, with some transitions occurring over a few decades. D–O variability included changes in the strength of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), temperature changes of opposite sign and asynchronous timing in each hemisphere, shifts in the mean position of the Intertropical Convergence Zone and variations in atmospheric CO2. Palaeorecords and numerical studies indicate that the AMOC, with a tight coupling to Nordic Seas sea ice, is central to D–O variability, yet, a complete theory remains elusive. In this Review, we synthesize the climatic expression and processes proposed to explain D–O cyclicity. What emerges is an oscillatory framework of the AMOC–sea-ice system, arising through feedbacks involving the atmosphere, cryosphere and the Earth’s biogeochemical system. Palaeoclimate observations indicate that the AMOC might be more sensitive to perturbations than climate models currently suggest. Tighter constraints on AMOC stability are, thus, needed to project AMOC changes over the coming century as a response to anthropogenic carbon emissions. Progress can be achieved by additional observational constraints and numerical simulations performed with coupled climate–ice-sheet models.

Key points

  • Abrupt warming events in Greenland and the North Atlantic, referred to as Dansgaard–Oeschger (D–O) events, were associated with a strengthening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), and changes in the global climate and carbon cycle.

  • AMOC changes, with a tight coupling to Nordic Seas sea ice, strongly affect the climate and marine carbon cycle, and, in turn, the ice-sheet mass balance. Resultant changes in oceanic wind stress, ocean heat content and salinity feed back on the AMOC.

  • Owing to the different timescales of the feedbacks, self-sustained AMOC oscillations could emerge during intermediate glacial states. The boundary conditions of intermediate glacial states (size of ice sheets, Bering Strait throughflow and atmospheric CO2 concentration) appear to be key in enabling these oscillations.

  • Perturbations other than changes in meltwater input, including changes in atmospheric CO2 or Northern Hemisphere ice-sheet height and extent, can lead to, and may be required for, D–O variability.

  • The relatively large and frequent AMOC changes associated with D–O variability suggest a relatively low AMOC stability during intermediate glacial states. This low stability is not evident in all numerical experiments performed with coupled climate models, implying that some might either overestimate the AMOC stability or have a mismatch in the required background state for the low-AMOC-stability regime.

  • Additional observations on the location and strength of North Atlantic Deep Water formation and its link with sea ice, as well as its improved representation in climate models, are needed to better constrain future climate projections.

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Fig. 1: Proxy records showing D–O variability across Marine Isotope Stage 3.
Fig. 2: Climatic anomalies associated with D–O and Heinrich stadials compared with an interstadial peak.
Fig. 3: Subsurface temperature anomalies associated with D–O and Heinrich stadials compared with an interstadial peak.
Fig. 4: Possible AMOC states for stadials and interstadials.
Fig. 5: Summary of interactions and feedbacks involved in D–O variability.

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Acknowledgements

L.C.M. acknowledges funding from the Australian Research Council (grant nos. FT180100606 and DP180100048). P.C.T acknowledges funding from the UK Natural Environment Research Council (grant no. NE/R000204/1).

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L.C.M. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from L.C.S., L.T. and P.C.T. All authors contributed to the ideas in this paper.

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Menviel, L.C., Skinner, L.C., Tarasov, L. et al. An ice–climate oscillatory framework for Dansgaard–Oeschger cycles. Nat Rev Earth Environ (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-00106-y

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