A new twist to Pleistocene climate cycles

The combined gravitational pulls of the sun and moon modulate variations in local tidal range. High spring tides occur when the two bodies are opposed at full moon or in roughly the same direction at new Moon. When the positions of sun and moon are at right angles (1st quarter and 3rd quarter) their gravitational pulls partly cancel each other to give neap tides. Consequently, there are two tidal cycles every lunar month.  In a similar way, the varying gravitational pulls of the planets during their orbital cycles impart a repetitive harmony to Earths astronomical behaviour. But their combined effects are on the order of tens of thousand years. Milutin Milankovich (1879-1958), a Serbian engineer, pondered on the possible causes of Earth’s climatic variations, particularly the repetition of ice ages. He was inspired by 19th century astronomers’ suggestion that maybe the gravitational effects of other planets might be a fruitful line of research. Milankovich focussed on how the shape of Earth’s orbit, the tilt of its rotational axis and the way the axis wobbles like that of a spinning top affect the amount of solar heating at all points on the surface: the effects of varying eccentricity, obliquity and precession, respectively.

 Earlier astronomers had calculated cycles of gravitational effects on Earth of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn of the three attributes of Earth’s astronomical behaviour and found periods of about 100, 41 and 23 thousand years (ka) respectively. The other 3 inner planets and the much more distant giants Uranus and Neptune also have gravitational effects on Earth, but they are negligible compared with those of the two nearest giant planets, because gravitation force varies with mass and inversely with the square of distance. Sadly, Milankovich was long dead when his hypothesis of astronomical climate forcing was verified in 1976 by frequency analysis of the record of oxygen isotopes in foraminifera found in two ocean sediment core from the Southern Indian Ocean. It revealed that all three periods interfered in complex ways during the Late Pleistocene, to dominate variations in sea-surface temperatures and the fluctuating volume of continental ice sheets for which δ18O is a proxy (see: Odds and ends about Milankovich and climate change; February 2017).

Precession of the axis of a spinning top and that of the Earth. At present the northern end of Earth’s axis points to what we now call the Pole Star. Around 11.5 ka from now it will point to the star Vega

This was as revolutionary for climatology as plate tectonics was for geology. We now know that in the early Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles were in lockstep with the 41 ka period of axial obliquity, and since 700 ka followed closely – but not perfectly – the 100 ka orbital eccentricity forcing. The transitional period between 1.25 and 0.7 Ma (the Mid-Pleistocene Transition or MPT) suggested neither one nor the other. Milankovich established that axial tilt variations have the greatest influence on solar heating, so the early 41 ka cycles were no surprise. But the dominance of orbital eccentricity on the last 700 ka certainly presented a puzzle, for it has by far the weakest influence on solar heating: 10 times less than those of axial obliquity and precession. The other oddity concerns the actual effect of axial precession on climate change. There are no obvious 23 ka cycles in the climate record, despite the precession signal being clear in frequency analysis and its effect on solar heating being almost as powerful as obliquity and ten times greater than that of orbital eccentricity. Precessional wobbling of the axis controls the time of year when one hemisphere or the other is closest to the Sun. At one extreme it will be the Northern and 11.5 ka later it will be the Southern. The times of solstices and equinoxes also change relative to the calendar that we use today.

There is an important, if obvious, point about astronomical forcing of climate. It is always there, with much the same complicated interactions between the factors: human activities have absolutely no bearing on them. Climatic ‘surprises’ are likely to continue!

Changes in ice-rafted debris (IRD) since 1.7 Ma in a sediment core from the North Atlantic (orange fill) compared with its oxygen-isotope (δ18O) record of changes in continental ice cover (blue fill). At the top are the modelled variations in 23 ka axial precession (lilac) and 41 ka obliquity (green). The red circles mark major interglacial episodes, blue diamonds show the onset of significant ice rafting and orange diamonds are terminations of ice-rafting (TIR). (Credit: Barker et al., Fig. 2)

Sea temperature and ice-sheet volume are not the only things that changed during the Pleistocene. Another kind of record from oceanic sediments concerns the varying proportion in the muddy layers of abnormally coarse sand grains and even small pebbles that have been carried by icebergs; they are known as ice-rafted debris (IRD). The North Atlantic Ocean floor has plenty of evidence for them appearing and disappearing on a layer-by-layer basis. They were first recognised in 1988 by an oceanographer called Helmut Heinrich, who proposed that six major layers rich in IRD in North Atlantic cores bear witness to iceberg ‘armadas’ launched by collapse, or ablation, at the front of surging ice sheets on Scandinavia, Greenland and eastern Canada. Heinrich events, along with Dansgaard-Oeschger events (rapid climatic warming followed by slower cooling) in the progression to the last glacial maximum have been ascribed to a variety of processes  operating on a ‘millennial’ scale. However, ocean-floor sediment cores are full of lesser fluctuations in IRD, back to at least 1.7 Ma ago. That record offers a better chance of explaining fluctuations in ice-sheet ablation. A joint European-US group has investigated their potential over the last decade or so (Barker, S. et al. 2022. Persistent influence of precession on northern ice sheet variability since the early Pleistocene. Science, v. 376, p. 961-967; DOI: 10.1126/science.abm4033). The authors noted that in each glacial cycle since 1.7 Ma the start of ice rafting consistently occurred during a time of decreasing axial obliquity. Yet the largest ablation events were linked to minima in the precession cycles. In the last 700 ka, such extreme events are associated with the terminations of each ice age.

In the earlier part of the record, the 41 ka obliquity ‘signal’ was sufficient to drive glacial-interglacial cycles, hence their much greater regularity and symmetry than those that followed the Mid-Pleistocene Transition. The earlier ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere also had consistently smaller extents than those after the MPT. Although the records show a role for precession in pre-MPT times in the form of ice-rafting events, the lesser effect of precession on summer warming at higher latitudes, compared with that of axial obliquity, gave it no decisive influence. After 700 ka the northern ice sheets extended much further south – as far as 40°N in North America – where summer warming would always have been commensurately greater than at high northern latitudes. So they were more susceptible to melting during the increased summer warming driven by the precession cycles. When maximum summer heating induced by axial precession in the Northern Hemisphere coincided with that of obliquity the ice sheets as a whole would have become prone to catastrophic collapse.

It is hard to say whether these revelations have a bearing on future climate. Of course, astronomical forcing will continue relentlessly, irrespective of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Earth has been in an interglacial for the last 11.5 ka, since the Younger Dryas; i.e. about half a precession cycle ago. The combination of obliquity- and precession-driven influences suggest that climate should be cooling and has been since 6,000 years ago, until the Industrial Revolution intervened. Can the gravitational pull of the giant planets prevent a runaway greenhouse effect, or will human effects defy astronomical forces that continually distort Earth’s astronomical behaviour?

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