Monday, April 30, 2012

Evaluating a 1981 temperature projection -James Hansen

Unlocking the secrets to ending an Ice Age

It has long been known that characteristics of the Earth’s orbit (its eccentricity, the degree to which it is tilted, and its “wobble”) are slightly altered on timescales of tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Such variations, collectively known as Milankovitch cycles, conspire to pace the timing of glacial-to-interglacial variations.

Despite the immense explanatory power that this hypothesis has provided, some big questions still remain. For one, the relative roles of eccentricity, obliquity, and precession in controlling glacial onsets/terminations are still debated. While the local, seasonal climate forcing by the Milankovitch cycles is large (of the order 30 W/m2), the net forcing provided by Milankovitch is close to zero in the global mean, requiring other radiative terms (like albedo or greenhouse gas anomalies) to force global-mean temperature change.

The last deglaciation occurred as a long process between peak glacial conditions (from ~26-20,000 years ago) to the Holocene (~10,000 years ago). Explaining this evolution is not trivial. Variations in the orbit cause opposite changes in the intensity of solar radiation during the summer between the Northern and Southern hemisphere, yet ice age terminations seem synchronous between hemispheres. This could be explained by the role of the greenhouse gas CO2, which varies in abundance in the atmosphere in sync with the glacial cycles and thus acts as a “globaliser” of glacial cycles, as it is well-mixed throughout the atmosphere. However, if CO2 plays this role it is surprising that climatic proxies indicate that Antarctica seems to have warmed prior to the Northern Hemisphere, yet glacial cycles follow in phase with Northern insolation (“INcoming SOLar radiATION”) patterns, raising questions as to what communication mechanism links the hemispheres.

There have been multiple hypotheses to explain this apparent paradox. One is that the length of the austral summer co-varies with boreal summer intensity, such that local insolation forcings could result in synchronous deglaciations in each hemisphere (Huybers and Denton, 2008). A related idea is that austral spring insolation co-varies with summer duration, and could have forced sea ice retreat in the Southern Ocean and greenhouse gas feedbacks (e.g., Stott et al., 2007). More