While most geoscientists use the products of processes that operate today to judge environments of the past, climatologists do the reverse: the past is the key to the present. While the climate record of the last 2.5 Ma is a key to understanding and perhaps even predicting rapid climate shifts during glacial-interglacial periods uncontaminated by human influences, such is the extent to which greenhouse emissions have affected the current climate that we have little idea what the outcomes may be. The possibility of greenhouse warming has become higher than in any previous interglacial epoch. To get even an inkling of what that might set in motion requires looking back to warmer times than the Late Pliocene and Pleistocene, at around 3 to 5 Ma. In the Early Pliocene it is very likely that CO2 in the atmosphere was no more than nowadays. Because the Earth’s geography was little different from the way it is now and the Milankovich forcing was the same too, modelling Early Pliocene climate might seem to result in similar patterns, but it doesn’t (Fedorov, A.V. et al. 2006. The Pliocene paradox (mechanisms for a permanent El Niño). Science, v. 312, p. 1485-1489). Sea level was some 25 metres higher than it is at present and mean global temperature was an extra 3°C, and sea-surface temperatures (from the oxygen isotopes in planktonic foraminifera) were high as well. Despite much the same forcing factors as today, the Pliocene lacked large high-latitude ice caps in Arctic regions. Milankovich-related fluctuations were damped down compared with those of the Pleistocene. Both modelling and geological evidence from the Early Pliocene suggests that Earth’s climate was dominated by a perpetual El Niño in the tropical oceans, because of an inability of cold water to upwell periodically along the western tropical margins of Africa and South America. Quite probably such conditions had persisted for the previous 50 Ma, despite gradual overall cooling.
Fedorov and colleagues point to very different Early Pliocene climates in several regions: Mild winters in central and north-eastern North America; droughts in Indonesia and torrential rains in western North and South America. Overall, it was a much more humid world, and since water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas warmth and humidity were sustained despite no higher CO2 levels than now. At about 3 Ma, ocean surface waters began to cool, with signs that the alternations associated with El Niño and La Niña in the eastern Pacific began. An explanation for this is the gradual build up of very cold water deep in the ocean as a result of winds from continents cooling ocean surface water at high latitudes and causing it to sink. Without periodic upwellings, warm surface waters and cold deep waters could not mix, so inevitably the interface became shallower. At some critical depth, this thermocline could break surface, transforming both climate patterns and those of ocean currents, eventually to end up as the present tropical climate cyclicity which is connected with other climate features of the Great Ice Age.
Fedorov et al speculate that only a small descent of the ocean thermocline – a matter of a few tens of metres – could re-establish Pliocene conditions. That might occur because of continued anthropogenic warming, and the ‘flip’ might be as quick as a few decades to centuries.