Magnitude and Range of Climate Changes

by Dr. Don J. Easterbrook
January 26, 2011

The GISP2 Greenland ice core has proven to be a great source of climatic data from the geologic past. Ancient temperatures can be measured using oxygen isotopes in the ice and ages can be determined from annual dust accumulation layers in the ice. The oxygen isotope ratios of thousands of ice core samples were measured by Minze Stuiver and Peter Grootes at the University of Washington (1993, 1999) and these data have become a world standard.

The ratio of 18O to 16O depends on the temperature at the time snow crystals formed, which were later transformed into glacial ice. Ocean volume may also play a role in δ18O values, but δ18O serves as a good proxy for temperature. The oxygen isotopic composition of a sample is expressed as a departure of the 18O/16O ratio from an arbitrary standard where δ18O is the of ratio 18O/16O expressed in per mil (0/00) units.

The age of each sample is accurately known from annual dust layers in the ice core. The top of the core is 1987.
The δ18O data clearly show remarkable swings in climate over the past 100,000 years. In just the past 500 years, Greenland warming/cooling temperatures fluctuated back and forth about 40 times, with changes every 25-30 years (27 years on the average). None of these changes could have been caused by changes in atmospheric CO2 because they predate the large CO2 emissions that began about 1945. Nor can the warming of 1915 to 1945 be related to CO2, because it pre-dates the soaring emissions after 1945. Thirty years of global cooling (1945 to 1977) occurred during the big post-1945 increase in CO2.

But what about the magnitude and rates of climates change? How do past temperature oscillations compare with recent global warming (1977-1998) or with warming periods over the past millennia. The answer to the question of magnitude and rates of climate change can be found in the δ18O and borehole temperature data.

Temperature changes in the GISP2 core over the past 25,000 years are shown in Figure 1 (from Cuffy and Clow, 1997). The temperature curve in Figure 1 is a portion of their original curve. I’ve added color to make it easier to read. The horizontal axis is time and the vertical axis is temperature based on the ice core δ18O and borehole temperature data.

Details are discussed in their paper. Places where the curve becomes nearly vertical signify times of very rapid temperature change. Keep in mind that these are temperatures in Greenland, not global temperatures. However, correlation of the ice core temperatures with world-wide glacial fluctuations and correlation of modern Greenland temperatures with global temperatures confirms that the ice core record does indeed follow global temperature trends and is an excellent proxy for global changes. For example, the portions of the curve from about 25,000 to 15,000 represent the last Ice Age (the Pleistocene) when huge ice sheets thousands of feet thick covered North America, northern Europe, and northern Russia and alpine glaciers readvanced far downvalley.

So let’s see just how the magnitude and rates of change of modern global warming/cooling compare to warming/cooling events over the past 25,000 years. We can compare the warming and cooling in the past century to approximate 100 year

Greenland temperatures over the past 25,000 years recorded in the GISP2 ice core. Strong, abrupt warming is shown by nearly vertical rise of temperatures, strong cooling by nearly vertical drop of temperatures (Modified from Cuffy and Clow, 1997).

periods in the past 25,000 years. The scale of the curve doesn’t allow enough accuracy to pick out exactly 100 year episodes directly from the curve, but that can be done from the annual dust layers in ice core data. Thus, not all of the periods noted here are exactly 100 years. Some are slightly more, some are slightly less, but they are close enough to allow comparison of magnitude and rates with the past century.

Temperature changes recorded in the GISP2 ice core from the Greenland Ice Sheet (Figure 1) (Cuffy and Clow, 1997) show that the global warming experienced during the past century pales into insignificance when compared to the magnitude of profound climate reversals over the past 25,000 years. In addition, small temperature changes of up to a degree or so, similar to those observed in the 20th century record, occur persistently throughout the ancient climate record.

Figure 2 shows comparisons of the largest magnitudes of warming/cooling events per century over the past 25,000 years. At least three warming events were 20 to 24 times the magnitude of warming over the past century and four were 6 to 9 times the magnitude of warming over the past century. The magnitude of the only modern warming which might possibly have been caused by CO2. (1978-1998) is insignificant compared to the earlier periods of warming.

Temperatures on the vertical axis are rise or fall of temperatures in about a century. Each column represents the rise or fall of temperature shown on Figure 1. Event number 1 is about 24,000 years ago and event number 15 is about 11,000 years old. The sudden warming about 15,000 years ago caused massive melting of these ice sheets at an unprecedented rate. The abrupt cooling that occurred from 12,700 to 11,500 years ago is known as the Younger Dryas cold period, which was responsible for readvance of the ice sheets and alpine glaciers. The end of the Younger Dryas cold period warmed by 9°F ( 5°C) over 30-40 years and as much as 14°F (8°C) over 40 years.


Some of the more remarkable sudden climatic warming periods are shown listed below (refer also to Figure 1). Numbers

Magnitudes of the largest warming/ cooling events over the past 25,000 years.

correspond to the temperature curves on Figure 2.

1. About 24,000 years ago, while the world was still in the grip of the last Ice Age and huge continental glaciers covered large areas, a sudden warming of about 20°F occurred. Shortly thereafter, temperatures dropped abruptly about 11°F. Temperatures then remained cold for several thousand years but oscillated between about 5°F warmer and cooler.

2. About 15,000 years ago, a sudden, intense, climatic warming of about 21°F (~12° C;) caused dramatic melting of the large ice sheets that covered Canada and the northern U.S., all of Scandinavia, and much of northern Europe and Russia.

3. A few centuries later, temperatures again plummeted about 20° F (~11°C) and glaciers readvanced.

4. About 14,000 years ago, global temperatures once again rose rapidly, about 8°F (~4.5°C), and glaciers receded.

5. About 13,400 years ago, global temperatures plunged again, about 14° F (~8°C) and glaciers readvanced.

6. About 13,200 years ago, global temperatures increased rapidly, 9° F (~5°C), and glaciers receded.

7. 12,700 years ago global temperatures plunged sharply, 14° F (~8°C) and a 1300 year cold period, the Younger Dryas, began.

8. After 1300 years of cold climate, global temperatures rose sharply, about 21° F (~12°C), 11,500 years ago, marking the end of the Younger Dryas cold period and the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age.


8,200 years ago, the post-Ice Age interglacial warm period was interrupted by a sudden global cooling that lasted for a few

The 8200 year B.P. sudden climate change, recorded in oxygen isotope ratios in the GISP2 ice core, lasted about 200 years.

centuries (Fig. 3). During this time, alpine glaciers advanced and built moraines. The warming that followed the cool period was also abrupt. Neither the abrupt climatic cooling nor the warming that followed was preceded by atmospheric CO2 changes.


750 B.C. to 200 B.C. Cool Period Prior to the founding of the Roman Empire, Egyptians records show a cool climatic period from about 750 to 450 B.C. and the Romans wrote that the Tiber River froze and snow remained on the ground for long periods (Singer and Avery, 2007).

The Roman Warm Period (200 B.C. to 600 A.D.)

After 100 B.C., Romans wrote of grapes and olives growing farther north in Italy than had been previously possible and of little snow or ice (Singer and Avery, 2007).

The Dark Ages Cool Period (440 A.D. to 900 A.D.)

The Dark Ages were characterized by marked cooling. A particularly puzzling event apparently occurred in 540 A.D. when tree rings suggest greatly retarded growth, the sun appeared dimmed for more than a year, temperatures dropped in Ireland, Great Britain, Siberia, North and South America, fruit didn’t ripen, and snow fell in the summer in southern Europe (Baillie in Singer and Avery, 2007). In 800 A.D., the Black Sea froze and in 829 A.D. the Nile River froze (Oliver, 1973).

The Medieval Warm Period (900 A.D. to 1300 A.D.)

The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was a time of warm climate from about 900–1300 AD when global temperatures were apparently somewhat warmer than at present. Its effects were particularly evident in Europe where grain crops flourished, alpine tree lines rose, many new cities arose, and the population more than doubled. The Vikings took advantage of the climatic amelioration to colonize Greenland, and wine grapes were grown as far north as England where growing grapes is now not feasible and about 500 km north of present vineyards in France and Germany. Grapes are presently grown in Germany up to elevations of about 560 meters, but from about 1100 to 1300 A.D., vineyards extended up to 780 meters, implying temperatures warmer by about 1.0 to 1.4°C (Oliver, 1973, Tkachuck, 1983).

Wheat and oats were grown around Trondheim, Norway, suggesting climates about one degree C warmer than present (Fagan, 2007).

The Vikings colonized southern Greenland in 985 AD during the Medieval Warm Period when milder climates allowed favorable open-ocean conditions for navigation and fishing. This was “close to the maximum Medieval warming recorded in the GISP2 ice core at 975 AD (Stuiver et al., 1995).

Elsewhere in the world, prolonged droughts affected the southwestern United States and Alaska warmed. Sediments in Lake Nakatsuna in central Japan record warmer temperatures.

The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was a time of warm climate from about 900–1300 AD when global temperatures were apparently somewhat warmer than at present.

Elsewhere in the world, prolonged droughts affected the southwestern United States and Alaska warmed.

Sea surface temperatures in the Sargasso Sea were approximately 1°C warmer than today and the climate in equatorial east Africa was drier from 1000–1270 AD. An ice core from the eastern Antarctic Peninsula shows warmer temperatures during this period.

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About Luis Miranda
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