Posts Tagged ‘Milankovitch cycles’

A model to explain the end of an ice age (but not yet to predict when one may start)

February 23, 2017

That the onset of glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) periods on earth are a consequence of the Milankovitch cycles is almost certain. Researchers have now developed a model which seems to be able to explain why and when glacial periods end to give interglacial conditions. Exactly what cause glacial conditions to be triggered remains to be discovered.

P. C. Tzedakis, M. Crucifix, T. Mitsui, E. W. Wolff. A simple rule to determine which insolation cycles lead to interglacials. Nature, 2017; 542 (7642): 427 DOI: 10.1038/nature21364

AbstractThe pacing of glacial–interglacial cycles during the Quaternary period (the past 2.6 million years) is attributed to astronomically driven changes in high-latitude insolation. However, it has not been clear how astronomical forcing translates into the observed sequence of interglacials. Here we show that before one million years ago interglacials occurred when the energy related to summer insolation exceeded a simple threshold, about every 41,000 years. Over the past one million years, fewer of these insolation peaks resulted in deglaciation (that is, more insolation peaks were ‘skipped’), implying that the energy threshold for deglaciation had risen, which led to longer glacials. However, as a glacial lengthens, the energy needed for deglaciation decreases. A statistical model that combines these observations correctly predicts every complete deglaciation of the past million years and shows that the sequence of interglacials that has occurred is one of a small set of possibilities. The model accounts for the dominance of obliquity-paced glacial–interglacial cycles early in the Quaternary and for the change in their frequency about one million years ago. We propose that the appearance of larger ice sheets over the past million years was a consequence of an increase in the deglaciation threshold and in the number of skipped insolation peaks.

Onset of Interglacials Tzedakis et al

Onset of Interglacials Tzedakis et al

Science Daily reports:

…. In a new study published today in Nature, researchers from UCL (University College London), University of Cambridge and University of Louvain have combined existing ideas to solve the problem of which solar energy peaks in the last 2.6 million years led to the melting of the ice sheets and the start of a warm period.

During this interval, Earth’s climate has alternated between cold (glacial) and warm (interglacial) periods. In the cold times, ice sheets advanced over large parts of North America and northern Europe. In the warm periods like today, the ice sheets retreated completely.

It has long been realised that these cycles were paced by astronomical changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and in the tilt of its axis, which change the amount of solar energy available to melt ice at high northern latitudes in summer.

However, of the 110 incoming solar energy peaks (about every 21,000 years) only 50 led to complete melting of the ice sheets. Finding a way to translate the astronomical changes into the sequence of interglacials has previously proved elusive. 

Professor Chronis Tzedakis (UCL Geography) said: “The basic idea is that there is a threshold for the amount of energy reaching high northern latitudes in summer. Above that threshold, the ice retreats completely and we enter an interglacial.”

From 2.6 to 1 million years ago, the threshold was reached roughly every 41,000 years, and this predicts almost perfectly when interglacials started and the ice sheets disappeared. Professor Eric Wolff (University of Cambridge) said: “Simply put, every second solar energy peak occurs when the Earth’s axis is more inclined, boosting the total energy at high latitudes above the threshold.”

Somewhere around a million years ago, the threshold rose, so that the ice sheets kept growing for longer than 41,000 years. However, as a glacial period lengthens, ice sheets become larger, but also more unstable.

The researchers combined these observations into a simple model, using only solar energy and waiting time since the previous interglacial, that was able to predict all the interglacial onsets of the last million years, occurring roughly every 100,000 years.

Dr Takahito Mitsui (University of Louvain) said: “The next step is to understand why the energy threshold rose around a million years ago — one idea is that this was due to a decline in the concentration of CO2, and this needs to be tested.”

The results explain why we have been in a warm period for the last 11,000 years: despite the weak increase in solar energy, ice sheets retreated completely during our current interglacial because of the very long waiting time since the previous interglacial and the accumulated instability of ice sheets. …..

Milankovitch Cycles (Wikipedia)

What would cause the current interglacial to end remains to be discovered. It’s only my speculation of course but I suspect that a trigger event is probably needed. Possibly 2 or 3 major (VEI >6) volcanic eruptions over a short period, with large amounts of dust, which in turn led to a a few “years without summers”, could provide such a trigger for an unstoppable process. However the onset of full glacial conditions would still take a few thousand years. The availability of high energy densities would probably make it (relatively) easy for humans to continue to thrive and prosper (as they have done through other glacial periods with much lower energy availability).


 

Southern Hemisphere sea ice growth together with Milankovitch cycles may be the trigger for an ice age

January 27, 2017

The three Milankovitch orbital cycles, due to eccentricity (100,000 years), axial tilt (41,000 years), and precession (23,000 years) have long been thought to be connected to the onsets of glacial or interglacial conditions. New research now suggests that growth of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere at particular times of the Milankovitch cycles could be the trigger for a new glacial age. The work suggests that different orbital cycles have been predominant at different times.

“For the past million years or so, the 100,000-year glacial cycle has been the most prominent. But before a million years ago, paleoclimate data suggest that pace of the glacial cycle was closer to about 40,000 years. That suggests that the third Milankovitch Cycle, which repeats every 41,000 years, was dominant then.”

Jung-Eun Lee, Aaron Shen, Baylor Fox-Kemper, Yi Ming. Hemispheric sea ice distribution sets the glacial tempo. Geophysical Research Letters, 2017; DOI: 10.1002/2016GL071307

Abstract

The proxy record of global temperature shows that the dominant periodicity of the glacial cycle shifts from 40-kyr (obliquity) to 100-kyr (eccentricity), about a million years ago. Using climate model simulations, here we show that the pace of the glacial cycle depends on the pattern of hemispheric sea ice growth. In a cold climate the sea ice grows asymmetrically between two hemispheres under changes to Earth’s orbital precession, because sea ice growth potential outside of the Arctic Circle is limited. This difference in hemispheric sea ice growth leads to an asymmetry in absorbed solar energy for the two hemispheres, particularly when eccentricity is high, even if the annual average insolation is similar. In a warmer climate, the hemispheric asymmetry of the sea ice decreases as mean Arctic and Antarctic sea ice decreases, diminishing the precession and eccentricity signals and explaining the dominant obliquity signal (40-kyr) before the mid-Pleistocene transition.

The Brown University press release:

Climate simulations show how changes in Earth’s orbit alter the distribution of sea ice on the planet, helping to set the pace for the glacial cycle.

Earth is currently in what climatologists call an interglacial period, a warm pulse between long, cold ice ages when glaciers dominate our planet’s higher latitudes. For the past million years, these glacial-interglacial cycles have repeated roughly on a 100,000-year cycle. Now a team of Brown University researchers has a new explanation for that timing and why the cycle was different before a million years ago.

Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers show that two periodic variations in Earth’s orbit combine on a 100,000-year cycle to cause an expansion of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere. Compared to open ocean waters, that ice reflects more of the sun’s rays back into space, substantially reducing the amount of solar energy the planet absorbs. As a result, global temperature cools.

“The 100,000-year pace of glacial-interglacial periods has been difficult to explain,” said Jung-Eun Lee, an assistant professor in Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Studies and the study’s lead author. “What we were able to show is the importance of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere along with orbital forcings in setting the pace for the glacial-interglacial cycle.”

In the 1930s, Serbian scientist Milutin Milankovitch identified three different recurring changes in Earth’s orbital pattern. Each of these Milankovitch Cycles can influence the amount of sunlight the planet receives, which in turn can influence climate. The changes cycle through every 100,000, 41,000 and 21,000 years.

The problem is that the 100,000-year cycle alone is the weakest of the three in the degree to which it affects solar radiation. So why that cycle would be the one that sets the pace of glacial cycle is a mystery. But this new study shows the mechanism through which the 100,000-year cycle and the 21,000-year cycle work together to drive Earth’s glacial cycle.

The 21,000-year cycle deals with precession — the change in orientation of Earth’s tilted rotational axis, which creates Earth’s changing seasons. When the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, it gets more sunlight and experiences summer. At the same time, the Southern Hemisphere is tilted away, so it gets less sunlight and experiences winter. But the direction that the axis points slowly changes — or precesses — with respect to Earth’s orbit. As a result, the position in the orbit where the seasons change migrates slightly from year to year. Earth’s orbit is elliptical, which means the distance between the planet and the sun changes depending on where we are in the orbital ellipse. So precession basically means that the seasons can occur when the planet is closest or farthest from the sun, or somewhere in between, which alters the seasons’ intensity.

In other words, precession causes a period during the 21,000-year cycle when Northern Hemisphere summer happens around the time when the Earth is closest to the sun, which would make those summers slightly warmer. Six months later, when the Southern Hemisphere has its summer, the Earth would be at its furthest point from the sun, making the Southern Hemisphere summers a little cooler. Every 10,500 years, the scenario is the opposite.

In terms of average global temperature, one might not expect precession to matter much. Whichever hemisphere is closer to the sun in its summer, the other hemisphere will be farther away during its summer, so the effects would just wash themselves out. However, this study shows that there can indeed be an effect on global temperature if there’s a difference in the way the two hemispheres absorb solar energy — which there is.

That difference has to do with each hemisphere’s capacity to grow sea ice. Because of the arrangement of the continents, there’s much more room for sea ice to grow in the Southern Hemisphere. The oceans of the Northern Hemisphere are interrupted by continents, which limits the extent to which ice can grow. So when the precessional cycle causes a series of cooler summers in the Southern Hemisphere, sea ice can expand dramatically because there’s less summer melting.

The precession cycle can influence global climate because the Southern Hemisphere has a higher capacity of sea ice growth. The image depicts current variation in sea ice extent in each hemisphere.

Lee’s climate models rely on the simple idea that sea ice reflects a significant amount of solar radiation back into space that would normally be absorbed into the ocean. That reflection of radiation can lower global temperature.

“What we show is that even if the total incoming energy is the same throughout the whole precession cycle, the amount of energy the Earth actually absorbs does change with precession,” Lee said. “The large Southern Hemispheric sea ice that forms when summers are cooler reduces the energy absorbed.”

But that leaves the question of why the precession cycle, which repeats every 21,000 years, would cause a 100,000-year glacial cycle. The answer is that the 100,000-year orbital cycle modulates the effects of the precession cycle.

The 100,000-year cycle deals with the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit — meaning the extent to which it deviates from a circle. Over a period of 100,000 years, the orbital shape goes from almost circular to more elongated and back again. It’s only when eccentricity is high — meaning the orbit is more elliptical — that there’s a significant difference between the Earth’s furthest point from the sun and its closest. As a result, there’s only a large difference in the intensity of seasons due to precession when eccentricity is large.

“When eccentricity is small, precession doesn’t matter,” Lee said. “Precession only matters when eccentricity is large. That’s why we see a stronger 100,000-year pace than a 21,000-year pace.”

Lee’s models show that, aided by high eccentricity, cool Southern Hemisphere summers can decrease by as much as 17 percent the amount of summer solar radiation absorbed by the planet over the latitude where the difference in sea ice distribution is largest — enough to cause significant global cooling and potentially creating the right conditions for an ice age.

Aside from radiation reflection, there may be additional cooling feedbacks started by an increase in southern sea ice, Lee and her colleagues say. Much of the carbon dioxide — a key greenhouse gas — exhaled into the atmosphere from the oceans comes from the southern polar region. If that region is largely covered in ice, it may hold that carbon dioxide in like a cap on a soda bottle. In addition, energy normally flows from the ocean to warm the atmosphere in winter as well, but sea ice insulates and reduces this exchange. So having less carbon and less energy transferred between the atmosphere and the ocean add to the cooling effect.

The findings may also help explain a puzzling shift in the Earth’s glacial cycle. For the past million years or so, the 100,000-year glacial cycle has been the most prominent. But before a million years ago, paleoclimate data suggest that pace of the glacial cycle was closer to about 40,000 years. That suggests that the third Milankovitch Cycle, which repeats every 41,000 years, was dominant then.

While the precession cycle deals with which direction the Earth’s axis is pointing, the 41,000-year cycle deals with how much the axis is tilted. The tilt — or obliquity — changes from a minimum of about 22 degrees to a maximum of around 25 degrees. (It’s at 23 degrees at the moment.) When obliquity is higher, each of the poles gets more sunlight, which tends to warm the planet.

So why would the obliquity cycle be the most important one before a million years ago, but become less important more recently?

According to Lee’s models, it has to do with the fact that the planet has been generally cooler over the past million years than it was prior to that. The models show that, when the Earth was generally warmer than today, precession-related sea ice expansion in the Southern Hemisphere is less likely to occur. That allows the obliquity cycle to dominate the global temperature signature. After a million years ago, when Earth became a bit cooler on average, the obliquity signal starts to take a back seat to the precession/eccentricity signal.

Lee and her colleagues believe their models present a strong new explanation for the history of Earth’s glacial cycle — explaining both the more recent pace and the puzzling transition a million years ago.


 

“Carbon dioxide involved but not determinative in 100,000 year glacial cycles”

August 10, 2013

We are still struggling to explain what initiates an ice age (glaciation) and what causes them to end and the ice sheets to withdraw giving the interglacials.

interglacials

That the Milankovitch cycles and variations of insolation are involved in the onset and retreat of glacial periods is clear but the “how” is still elusive. Now a new paper describes a model where the ice sheets and the mutual feedbacks with climate are considered.

“Carbon dioxide is involved, but is not determinative, in the evolution of the 100,000-year glacial cycles”.

Abe-Ouchi A, Saito F, Kawamura K, Raymo ME, Okuno J, Takahashi K, Blatter H: Insolation-driven 100,000-year glacial cycles and hysteresis of ice-sheet volume. Nature, 2013, 500: 190-193, doi: 10.1038/nature12374

ETH Press Release: 

Ice ages and warm periods have alternated fairly regularly in the Earth’s history: the Earth’s climate cools roughly every 100,000 years, with vast areas of North America, Europe and Asia being buried under thick ice sheets. Eventually, the pendulum swings back: it gets warmer and the ice masses melt. While geologists and climate physicists found solid evidence of this 100,000-year cycle in glacial moraines, marine sediments and arctic ice, until now they were unable to find a plausible explanation for it.

Using computer simulations, a Japanese, Swiss and American team including Heinz Blatter, an emeritus professor of physical climatology at ETH Zurich, has now managed to demonstrate that the ice-age/warm-period interchange depends heavily on the alternating influence of continental ice sheets and climate.

“If an entire continent is covered in a layer of ice that is 2,000 to 3,000 metres thick, the topography is completely different,” says Blatter, explaining this feedback effect. “This and the different albedo of glacial ice compared to ice-free earth lead to considerable changes in the surface temperature and the air circulation in the atmosphere.” Moreover, large-scale glaciation also alters the sea level and therefore the ocean currents, which also affects the climate. 

As the scientists from Tokyo University, ETH Zurich and Columbia University demonstrated in their paper published in the journal Nature, these feedback effects between the Earth and the climate occur on top of other known mechanisms. It has long been clear that the climate is greatly influenced by insolation on long-term time scales. Because the Earth’s rotation and its orbit around the sun periodically change slightly, the insolation also varies. If you examine this variation in detail, different overlapping cycles of around 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years are recognisable (see box).

Given the fact that the 100,000-year insolation cycle is comparatively weak, scientists could not easily explain the prominent 100,000-year-cycle of the ice ages with this information alone. With the aid of the feedback effects, however, this is now possible.

The researchers obtained their results from a comprehensive computer model, where they combined an ice-sheet simulation with an existing climate model, which enabled them to calculate the glaciation of the northern hemisphere for the last 400,000 years. The model not only takes the astronomical parameter values, ground topography and the physical flow properties of glacial ice into account but also especially the climate and feedback effects. “It’s the first time that the glaciation of the entire northern hemisphere has been simulated with a climate model that includes all the major aspects,” says Blatter.

Using the model, the researchers were also able to explain why ice ages always begin slowly and end relatively quickly. The ice-age ice masses accumulate over tens of thousands of years and recede within the space of a few thousand years. Now we know why: it is not only the surface temperature and precipitation that determine whether an ice sheet grows or shrinks. Due to the aforementioned feedback effects, its fate also depends on its size. “The larger the ice sheet, the colder the climate has to be to preserve it,” says Blatter. In the case of smaller continental ice sheets that are still forming, periods with a warmer climate are less likely to melt them. It is a different story with a large ice sheet that stretches into lower geographic latitudes: a comparatively brief warm spell of a few thousand years can be enough to cause an ice sheet to melt and herald the end of an ice age.

The Milankovitch cycles

The explanation for the cyclical alternation of ice and warm periods stems from Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch (1879-1958), who calculated the changes in the Earth’s orbit and the resulting insolation on Earth, thus becoming the first to describe that the cyclical changes in insolation are the result of an overlapping of a whole series of cycles: the tilt of the Earth’s axis fluctuates by around two degrees in a 41,000-year cycle. Moreover, the Earth’s axis gyrates in a cycle of 26,000 years, much like a spinning top. Finally, the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun changes in a cycle of around 100,000 years in two respects: on the one hand, it changes from a weaker elliptical (circular) form into a stronger one. On the other hand, the axis of this ellipsis turns in the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The spinning of the Earth’s axis and the elliptical rotation of the axes cause the day on which the Earth is closest to the sun (perihelion) to migrate through the calendar year in a cycle of around 20,000 years: currently, it is at the beginning of January; in around 10,000 years, however, it will be at the beginning of July.

Based on his calculations, in 1941 Milankovitch postulated that insolation in the summer characterises the ice and warm periods at sixty-five degrees north, a theory that was rejected by the science community during his lifetime. From the 1970s, however, it gradually became clearer that it essentially coincides with the climate archives in marine sediments and ice cores. Nowadays, Milankovitch’s theory is widely accepted. “Milankovitch’s idea that insolation determines the ice ages was right in principle,” says Blatter. “However, science soon recognised that additional feedback effects in the climate system were necessary to explain ice ages. We are now able to name and identify these effects accurately.”

Download video: 

Simulated ice sheet change during the last glacial cycle (mov file, video: Abe-Ouchi et al. 2013)

Abstract: The growth and reduction of Northern Hemisphere ice sheets over the past million years is dominated by an approximately 100,000-year periodicity and a sawtooth pattern (gradual growth and fast termination). Milankovitch theory proposes that summer insolation at high northern latitudes drives the glacial cycles, and statistical tests have demonstrated that the glacial cycles are indeed linked to eccentricity, obliquity and precession cycles. Yet insolation alone cannot explain the strong 100,000-year cycle, suggesting that internal climatic feedbacks may also be at work. Earlier conceptual models, for example, showed that glacial terminations are associated with the build-up of Northern Hemisphere ‘excess ice’, but the physical mechanisms underpinning the 100,000-year cycle remain unclear. Here we show, using comprehensive climate and ice-sheet models, that insolation and internal feedbacks between the climate, the ice sheets and the lithosphere–asthenosphere system explain the 100,000-year periodicity. The responses of equilibrium states of ice sheets to summer insolation show hysteresis, with the shape and position of the hysteresis loop playing a key part in determining the periodicities of glacial cycles. The hysteresis loop of the North American ice sheet is such that after inception of the ice sheet, its mass balance remains mostly positive through several precession cycles, whose amplitudes decrease towards an eccentricity minimum. The larger the ice sheet grows and extends towards lower latitudes, the smaller is the insolation required to make the mass balance negative. Therefore, once a large ice sheet is established, a moderate increase in insolation is sufficient to trigger a negative mass balance, leading to an almost complete retreat of the ice sheet within several thousand years. This fast retreat is governed mainly by rapid ablation due to the lowered surface elevation resulting from delayed isostatic rebound, which is the lithosphere–asthenosphere response. Carbon dioxide is involved, but is not determinative, in the evolution of the 100,000-year glacial cycles.


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