Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Inspired by a random comment by Steve McIntyre over at his marvelous blog Climate Audit, I got to thinking about the ice ages. I’ve long heard that the ice ages are caused by the changes in summer insolation in the northern hemisphere. As the story goes, the Milankovitch cycles of variations in the earths orbit make it so that there is a variation in how strong the summer sun is in the northern hemisphere. When the summer sun is weaker, the ice sheets advance, and eventually the buildup of ice reflects enough solar energy to spiral us into the icebox. Then about every hundred thousand years, the sun gets stronger again, and melts away the ice, and within a few thousand years the great ice sheets melt away and we’re out of the icebox.
So of course, once I’ve had that thought, I was doomed, and so I had to take a look. I got the data, and here is the variation in average northern hemisphere insolation for the months of June, July, and August.
Figure 1. Average insolation during the summer months (J-J-A) at 40° north latitude. DATA SOURCE: NOAA
Now, I found that surprising. I hadn’t realized the size of the swings. The cycles are about 21,000 years long and the swings are quite large, up to 100 W/m2 from trough to peak. So IF the temperature is following the forcing as the current hypothesis claims, a swing of 100 W/m2 is certainly large enough to cause a very large swing in temperatures. The current hypothesis is that at equilibrium we should see a swing of ~3°C for each additional 3.7W/m2 of forcing. However, we’re talking annual swings. Transient climate sensitivity is about 70% of equilibrium sensitivity, so I’ll use 50% to give some cushion. So according to the current thinking, a swing of an additional 100 W/m2 which is maintained for a thousand years should result in an increased annual temperature swing of about 40°C (73°F) … and we don’t see anything in the geological records even half that size.
I also didn’t realize that there is an underlying ~400,000 year cycle, which leads to the larger peaks at about 200,000 and 600,000 years before present (BP), and also leads to the very, very small peak at about 400,000 years BP.
But obviously we don’t see such a swing in geological temperatures. In fact, we don’t see anything even near that. So, scratching my head, I went and got the longest temperature record we have. This is the record from the ice cores at the EPICA dome in Antarctica. Figure 2 shows that record:
Figure 2. Antarctic temperature variations estimated from deuterium data. DATA SOURCE: NOAA
Here, we can see the ~ 100,000 year cyclical nature of the emergence from the ice ages. The swing is generally on the order of about 12°C, and the usual estimate is that because the poles swing more than the tropics, the global swing is half the Antarctic swing, or about 6°C. We can also see that the current interglacial period, the “Holocene”, has lasted quite a while compared to the other interglacials.
Note also the very large and roughly symmetrical peak at about 400,000 years.
So … how does this relate to the Milankovitch cycles? Figure 3 shows the temperature overlaid over the Milankovitch cycles.
I gotta say I’m just not seeing it. The biggest oddity is that around 400,000 years, the very small insolation peak is correlated with a very large temperature peak. In addition, in general there seems to be very little correlation between the swings in insolation and the swings in temperature. Finally, the most interesting thing is the total lack of any 21,000 year cycle in the temperature.
Now, some authorities say that the crucial factor is not the insolation at 40°N, but the insolation at 60°N. So I checked that … but the difference in the pattern is only trivial. It mainly just affects the size of the swings, which are somewhat smaller at 60°N, but the pattern of large and small swings is essentially unchanged.
Now as might be imagined, I’m not the first one to be puzzled by this. It’s widespread enough that there’s a Wikipedia page entitled “The 100,000-year problem”, which points out that:
The 100,000 year problem is a discrepancy between past temperatures and the amount of incoming solar radiation, or insolation. The latter rises and falls according to the strength of radiation given off by the sun, the distance from the earth to the sun, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation. However, the recent change between glacial and inter-glacial states that occurs on a circa 100,000 year (100 ka) timescale, does not correlate well with these factors.
Due to variations in the Earth’s orbit, the amount of insolation varies with periods of around 21,000, 40,000, 100,000, and 400,000 years. Variations in the amount of incident solar energy drive changes in the climate of the Earth, and are recognised as a key factor in the timing of initiation and termination of glaciations. Isotope analysis shows the dominant periodicity of the climate response to be around 100,000 years, but the orbital forcing at this period is small.
However, my perplexity seems to be for a different reason than the other folks discussing this, which is that the really large insolation swings occur on a 21,000 year cycle, and there’s no trace of that in the EPICA data. I’m not so much interested in the existence of the 100,000-year cycles in the temperatures, as I am by the lack of any temperature response to the ~100 W/m2 swing in the insolation. Yes, I know that overall for the globe as a whole the swing is small because the hemispheric changes oppose each other, but for each hemisphere the changes are very large. Why do we see no trace of those very large swings?
Anyhow, all comments welcome.
Best wishes to all. It’s one AM, there was a new moon earlier tonight, I’m going outside for some stargazing, and I wish the same level of joy and awe to all of you.
As is my custom, I ask that if you disagree with someone, please QUOTE THE EXACT WORDS YOU DISAGREE WITH so that we can all understand the exact nature of your objection.