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?

Centenary of the Milanković Theory

A letter in the latest issue of Nature Geoscience (Cvijanovic, I. et al. 2020. One hundred years of Milanković cycles, v. Nature Geoscience , v.13p. 524–525; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0621-2) reveals the background to Milutin Milanković’s celebrated work on the astronomical  driver of climate cyclicity. Although a citizen of Serbia, he had been born at Dalj, a Serbian enclave, in what was Austro-Hungary. Just before the outbreak of World War I in 2014, he returned to his native village to honeymoon with his new bride. The assassination (29 June 2014) in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip prompted Austro-Hungarian authorities to imprison Serbian nationals. Milanković was interned in a PoW camp. Fortunately, his wife and and a former Hungarian colleague managed to negotiate his release, on condition that he served his captivity, with a right to work but under police surveillance, in Budapest. It was under these testing conditions that he wrote his seminal Mathematical Theory of Heat Phenomena Produced by Solar Radiation; finished in 1917 but remaining unpublished until 1920 because of a shortage of paper during the war.

Curiously, Milanković was a graduate in civil engineering — parallels here with Alfred Wegener of Pangaea fame, who was a meteorologist — and practised in Austria. Appointed to a professorship in Belgrade in 1909, he had to choose a field of research. To insulate himself from the rampant scientific competitiveness of that era, he chose a blend of mathematics and astronomy to address climate change. During his period as a political prisoner Milanković became the first to explain how the full set of cyclic variations in Earth’s orbit — eccentricity, obliquity and precession — caused distinct variations in incoming solar radiation at different latitudes and changed on multi-thousand-year timescales. The gist  of what might have lain behind the cyclicity of ice ages had first been proposed by Scottish scientist James Croll almost half a century earlier, but it was Milutin Milanković who, as it were, put the icing on the cake. What is properly known as the Milanković-Croll Theory triumphed in the late 1970s as the equivalent of plate tectonics in palaeoclimatology after Nicholas Shackleton and colleagues teased out the predicted astronomical signals from time series of oxygen isotope variations in marine-sediment cores.

Appropriately, while Milanković’s revoluitionary ideas lacked corroborating geological evidence, one of the first to spring to his support was that other resilient scientific ‘prophet’, Alfred Wegener. Neither of them lived to witness their vindication.

Odds and ends about Milankovitch and climate change

It is some 40 years since the last explosive development in understanding the way the world works. In 1976 verification of Milutin Milanković’s astronomical theory to explain cyclical climate change as expressed by surface processes has had a similar impact as the underpinning of internal processes by the emergence of plate tectonics in the preceding decade. Signals that match the regularity of changes in the Earth’s orbital eccentricity and the tilt and precession of its axis of rotation, with periods of roughly 96 and 413 ka, 41 ka, 21 and 26 ka respectively, were found in climate change proxies in deep-sea sediment cores (oxygen isotope sequences from benthonic foraminifera) spanning the last 2.6 Ma. The findings seemed as close to proof as one might wish, albeit with anomalies. The most notable of these was that although Milanković’s prediction of a dominant 41 ka effect of changing axial tilt, the strongest astronomical forcing, had characterised cooling and warming cycles in the early Pleistocene, since about a million years ago a ~100 ka periodicity took over – that of the weakest forcing from changing orbital obliquity. Analysis of sedimentary cycles from different episodes in earlier geological history, as during Carboniferous to Permian global frigidity, seemed to confirm that gravitational fluctuations stemming from the orbits of other planets, Jupiter and Saturn especially, had been a continual background to climate change.

All manner of explanations have been offered to explain why tiny, regular and predictable changes in Earth’s astronomical behaviour produce profound changes in the highly energetic and chaotic climate system. Much attention has centred on the mathematically based concept of stochastic resonance. That is a phenomenon where weak signals may be induced to show themselves if they are mixed with a random signal – ‘white noise’ spanning a great range of frequencies. The two resonate at the hidden frequencies thereby strengthening the weak, non-random signal. Noise is already present in the climate system because of the random and highly complex nature of the components of climate itself and the surface processes that it induces.

The latest development along these lines suggests that something quite simple may be at the root of inner complexities in the climatic history of the Pleistocene Epoch: the larger an ice sheet becomes and the longer it lasts the easier it is to cause it to melt away (Tzedakis, P.C. et al. 2017. A simple rule to determine which insolation cycles lead to interglacials. Nature, v. 542, p. 427-432; doi:10.1038/nature21364). The gist of the approach taken in the investigation lies in analysing the degree to which the onsets of major ice-cap melting match astronomically predicted peaks in summer insolation north of 65° N. It also subdivides O-isotope signals of periods of sea level rise into full interglacials, interstadials during periods of climate decline and a few cases of extended interglacials. Through time it is clear that there has been an  increase in the number of interstadials that interrupt cooling between interglacials. Plotting the time of peaks in predicted summer warming closest to major glacial melting events against their insolation energy is revealing.

Before 1.5 Ma the peak energy of summer insolation in the Northern Hemisphere exceeded a threshold leading to full interglacials rather than interstadials more often than it did during the period following 1 Ma. Although Milanković’s 41 ka periodicity remained recognisable throughout, from about 1.5 Ma ago more and more of the energy peaks resulted in only the partial ice melting of interstadial events. The energy threshold for the full deglaciation of interglacials seems to have increased between 1.5 to 1.0 Ma and then settled to a ‘steady state’. The balance between glacial growth and melting increasingly ‘skipped’ 41 ka peaks in insolation so that ice caps grew bigger with time. Deglaciation then required additional forcing. But considering the far larger extent of ice sheets, the tiny additional insolation due to shifts in  orbital eccentricity every ~100 ka surprisingly tipped truly savage ice ages into warm interglacials.

Resolving this paradox may lie with three simple, purely terrestrial factors associated with great ice caps: thicker and more extensive ice becomes warmer at its base and more prone to flow; climate above and around large ice caps becomes progressively colder and drier, so reducing their growth rate; the more sea level falls as land ice builds up, the more the vertical structure and flow of ocean water change. The first of these factors leads to periodic destabilisation when ice sheets surge outwards and increase the rate of iceberg calving into the surrounding oceans. Such ‘iceberg armadas’ characterised the last Ice Age to result in sudden irregularly spaced changes in ocean dynamics and global climate to return to metastable ice coverage, as did earlier ones of similar magnitude. The second factor results in dust lingering at the surface of ice caps that reduced the ability of ice to reflect solar radiation back to space, which enhances summer melting. The third and perhaps most profound factor reduces the formation of ocean bottom water into which dissolved carbon dioxide has accumulated from thermohaline sinking of surface water. This leads to more CO2 in the atmosphere and a growing greenhouse effect. Comforting as finding simplicity within huge complexity might seem, that orbital eccentricity’s weak effect on climatic warming – an order of magnitude less than any other astronomical forcing – can tip climate from one extreme to the other should be a grave warning: climate is chaotic and responds unpredictably to small changes …