Did ice-age climate changes across Europe happen at the same time?

Although the frigid conditions at the last glacial maximum, around 19 to 20 thousand years ago, gradually relinquished their grip through slow global warming, this amelioration came to sudden stop around 12 800 years before the present. Northern hemisphere ice-core and other climate records show that there was a return to glacial conditions over a period of a few decades at most, to launch what is known as the Younger Dryas stadial that lasted over a thousand years until about 11 500 years ago, with the onset of the warm, climatically more stable Holocene that launched the transformation of the human way of life. The start of the Younger Dryas had dramatic effects throughout the northern hemisphere, the cold conditions emerging suddenly from an immense oceanographic change; a weakening or the halt of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation in which cold, very salty surface waters at the fringe of the Arctic Ocean sink to drag warmer water to high latitudes. In short, the Gulf Stream slowed or stopped its warming influence at high northern latitudes.  Current thoughts centre on a freshening of surface sea water following the collapse of the North American ice sheet to gush meltwater and icebergs into the North Atlantic to buoy-up surface waters.

Iceage time 18kyr
Major climate shifts in Europe since 18 ka (credit: Wikipedia)

Most of the data about this climatic shock can only be dated accurately to within a few centuries: it is clear that the initial cooling was very rapid, on the scale of a few years, as was the warming that closed the Younger Dryas and marked the start of the Holocene, but the ‘when’ is known only to within a few hundred years. To resolve the start and stop ages needs records that include several indicators: clear signs of the beginning and end of the episode, an accurate means of dating them and confirmation from other sites, which presupposes a cast-iron means of correlating the records over large distances. The most reliable markers for correlation are volcanic ashes that can be dated radiometrically and which drift on the wind to be deposited over very large areas. If sedimentary sequences that accumulated continuously preserve such ashes, contain clear signs of climatic change and clearly record the passage of time in great detail, there is a chance of resolving climatic events very accurately; but they are no common.  A British-German team have located and analysed two such promising sites (Land, C.S. et al. 2013. Volcanic ash reveals time transgressive abrupt climate change during the Younger Dryas. Geology, v. 41, p. 1251-1254). One of them is from the bed of a lake that formed by a single volcanic eruption (Meerfelder Maar) in the Eifel region of western Germany. Quiet sediment accumulation has occurred there continuously to form very narrow, alternating dark and light layers, the variegation being due to sedimentation under ice in winter and open water in summer respectively. Twelve thousand of these annual varves provide a means of dating potentially with a precision of ± 1 year, but calibration to absolute time is necessary. The maar sediments contain three ash layers, two of which are from small local eruptions; the older having an age of 12 900 years before 2000 AD, the other being 11 000 years old, showing that the entire Younger Dryas is spanned by the Meerfelder Maar sediments. The third was dated by varve counting, showing the eruption had taken place 12 140 years ago. That age coincides closely with that of major eruption in Iceland.

Panorama Weinfelder Maar oder Totenmaar, Eifel
A typical volcanic maar in Eifel Region of Germany (credit: Wikipedia)

One prominent climatic feature of the Younger Dryas of Europe is a shift around halfway through: it started with the fiercest cold and then ameliorated. This change shows up in the Meerfelder Maar record as a reduction in mean varve thickness and an increase in the titanium content of the clays, the latter taking place in about a year (12 250 years ago) some 100 years before the Icelandic ash was deposited. The same kind of change occurs in records from lakes as far north as the Arctic Circle. One of the core records from Kråkenes in Northern Norway also contains the tell-tale Icelandic ash (as do ice cores from Greenland), but in its case it occurs 20 years before the abrupt climate shift. This clearly shows that major climate changes at the end of the last ice age occur at different times from place to place. The authors ascribe the 120 year difference between the two records to the times when prevailing, warm westerly winds began to affect central and northern Europe, linked to a gradual northward migration of the polar front. The data from both lakes also suggest that the Younger Dryas ended about 20 years earlier in Norway than in Germany, although Lane et al. do not comment..

Hitherto, correlation between climate records has been based on an assumption that major climate changes were at the same time, so that climate proxies such those discussed here have been ‘wiggle-matched’. Quite probably a lot of subtleties have thereby been missed.

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Yes, it was hot during the Permian

For those of us living in what was the heart of Pangaea – Europe and North America – more than 250 Ma ago this item’s title might seem like the ultimate truism. However, despite our vision of desert dune sands and evaporating inland seas, glaciation blanketed much of the Gondwana part of the supercontinent until the Middle Permian then lying athwart the South Pole. That would go a long way to accounting for extreme dryness at low to mid-latitudes, especially in the deep interior of Pangaea, but just how hot might tropical climates have been? The deglaciation of Gondwana was abrupt and has been touted as an analogue for a possible anthropogenic closure to the Cenozoic glacial epoch that began around 34 Ma in Antarctica and has periodically gripped land at northern latitudes as low as 40°N for the last 2.5 Ma. Since the present distribution of continents is totally different from the unique pole-to-pole shape of Pangaea, that is probably a view that is not widely held by palaeoclimatologists. Nonetheless, getting hard data on Permian conditions has an intrinsic interest for most geoscientists.

The bottom of Death Valley, USA
Playa lake in Death Valley, USA (credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best ways of measuring past temperatures, whether surficial or deep within the crust, almost directly is based on fluids trapped within minerals formed at the time of interest. In Permian strata there is no shortage of suitable material in the form of evaporite minerals, especially common salt or halite.  A distinctive chevron-like texture develops in halite that forms at the water-atmosphere interface in playa lakes that dry out every year. When thin sections of samples that contain fluid inclusions are slowly heated the air bubbles trapped in salt during crystallisation gradually homogenise with the other trapped fluids. Based on samples that have formed at the present day under a range of air temperatures, the temperature of homogenisation indicates the prevailing air temperature accurately. So well, in fact, that it is possible to assess diurnal temperature variations in suitable halite crystals.

Results have been obtained from Middle Permian halites in Kansas, USA (Zambito, J.J. & Benison, K.C. 2013. Extremely high temperatures and paleoclimate trends recorded in Permian ephemeral lake halite. Geology, v. 41, p. 587-590). In part of the section studied air temperatures reached 73°C, compared with a modern maximum of 57°C recorded in halites from the playas of Death Valley. Moreover, they exhibit changes of more than 30°C during daily cycles. But that kind of weather is common in other hot dry areas today, such as the Dasht-e Lut in eastern Iran. Also, the full data show crystallisation at lower temperatures (maxima of 30-40°C) in part of the sequence. What is noteworthy is that these data are the first quantitative indicators of weather before the last 2.5 Ma. Since evaporites extend back into the Precambrian, the method will undoubtedly extend accuracy and precision to paleoclimate  where only proxies and a modicum of guesswork were previously available.

Climate change and global volcanism

Geologists realized long ago that volcanic activity can have a profound effect on local and global climate. For instance, individual large explosive eruptions can punch large amounts of ash and sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere where they act to reflect solar radiation back to space, thereby cooling the planet. The 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines ejected 17 million tones of SO2; so much that the amount of sunlight reaching the Northern Hemisphere fell by around 10% and mean global temperature fell by almost 0.5 °C over the next 2 years. On the other hand, increased volcanic emissions of CO2 over geologically long periods of time are thought to explain some episodes of greenhouse conditions in the geological past.

Ash plume of Pinatubo during 1991 eruption.
Ash plume of Mount Pinatubo during its 1991 eruption. (credit: Wikipedia)

The converse effect of climate change on volcanism has, however, only been hinted at. One means of investigating a possible link is through the records of volcanic ash in sea-floor sediment cores in relation to cyclical climate change during the last million years. Data relating to the varying frequency volcanic activity in the circum Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ has been analysed by German and US geoscientists (Kutterolf, S. et al. 2013. A detection of Milankovich frequencies in global volcanic activity. Geology, v. 41, p. 227-230) to reveal a link with the 41 ka periodicity of astronomical climate forcing due to changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation. This matches well with the frequency spectrum displayed by changes in oxygen isotopes from marine cores that record the waxing and waning of continental ice sheets and consequent falls and rises in sea level. Yet there is no sign of links to the orbital eccentricity (~400 and ~100 ka) and axial precession (~22 ka) components of Milankovitch climatic forcing. An interesting detail is that the peak of volcanism lags that of tilt-modulated insolation by about 4 ka.

At first sight an odd coincidence, but both glaciation and changing sea levels involve shifting the way in which the lithosphere is loaded from above. With magnitudes of the orders of kilometres and hundreds of metres respectively glacial and eustatic changes would certainly affect the gravitational field. In turn, changes in the field and the load would result in stress changes below the surface that conceivably might encourage subvolcanic chambers to expel or accumulate magma. Kutterolf and colleagues model the stress from combined glacial and marine loading and unloading for a variety of volcanic provinces in the ‘Ring of Fire’ and are able to show nicely how the frequency of actual eruptions fits changing rates of deep-crustal stress from their model. Eruptions bunch together when stress changes rapidly, as in the onset of the last glacial maximum and deglaciations, and also during stadial-interstadial phases.

Whether or not there may be a link between climate change and plate tectonics, and therefore seismicity, is probably unlikely to be resolved simply because records do not exist for earthquakes before the historic period. As far as I can tell, establishing a link is possible only for volcanism close to coast lines, i.e. in island arcs and continental margins, and related to subduction processes, because the relative changes in stress during rapid marine transgressions and recessions would be large.. Deep within continents there may have been effects on volcanism related to local and regional ice-sheet loading. In the ocean basins, however, there remains a possibility of influences on the activity of ocean-island volcanoes, though whether or not that can be detected is unclear. Some, like Kilauea in Hawaii and La Palma in the Canary Islands, are prone to flank collapse and consequent tsunamis that could be influenced by much the same process. Another candidate for a climate-linked, potentially catastrophic process is that of destabilisation of marine sediments on the continental edge, as in the Storegga Slide off Norway whose last collapse and associated tsunami around 8 thousand years ago took place during the last major rise in sea level during deglaciation. The climatic stability of the Holocene probably damps down any rise in geo-risk with a link to rapid climate change, which anthropogenic changes are likely to be on a scale dwarfed by those during ice ages.

Tiny shrinking horses

English: This reproduction of a painting of an...
Reconstruction of Sifrhippus. Image via Wikipedia

The earliest known ancestors of modern horses occur in Palaeogene mammal-rich terrestrial sediments of the northwestern US, particularly those of the Wind and Bighorn Basins. The first with clear horse-like features was Sifrhippus (formely Eohippus, or Hyracotherium), but famously it had four hoofed toes and was about the size of a household cat. Subsequent development to a single load-bearing toe has long formed one of the classic cases for evolution. Sifrhippus lived at the end of the Palaeocene. From the large numbers of well-preserved skeletons, this was a herding animal. The large numbers of fossils have also made it a candidate for testing a hypothesis that individuals of a mammal and bird species become smaller as climate warms: Bergmann’s Rule. The background to this view is that in modern warm-blooded or endothermic animal species individuals tend to be smaller the closer they are to the Equator.

The end of the Palaeocene was marked by a now well-documented rise in global surface temperature that left a marked sign of increased 13C in sediments spanning the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary, which is widely believed to have resulted from massive exhalations of methane from the seafloor. Bergmann’s Rule arose because there appears to be a general decrease in size of most mammal fossils through the P-E Thermal Maximum.  Sifrhippus lived through the event and indeed did undergo 30% decrease in size at the start of the carbon-isotope shift marking the PETM. Moreover, after the isotopic excursion its fossils indicate a 70% increase in size (Secord, R. and 8 others 2012. Evolution of the earliest horses driven by climate change in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Science, v. 335, p. 959-962).

The study was of Sifrhippus and other mammals over a period representing several thousand generations. It broke new ground in two ways: it used the size of the horses’ teeth to estimate body mass, and teeth of a variety of mammals afforded systematic measurements of both carbon and oxygen isotopes. The carbon isotopic analyses pin-pointed the span of the PETM locally, while oxygen isotopes charted local changes in average temperature. The results show remarkable coherence with Bergmann’s Rule, but reveal other interesting aspects of the PETM in North America. Oxygen-isotope in the teeth of different mammal species give some idea of their diet and habitat. Sifrhippus shows the highest enrichment of 18O in its teeth, which suggests that it ate leaves from which water evaporation selectively removed the lighter 16O, i.e. in open, dry areas. Another ubiquitous fossil, Coryphodon, consistently has lower 18O than other mammals, signifying that it was water-loviong and ate aquatic plants, i.e. not subject to evaporation. Matching O-isotopes for the two species across the PETM shows a greater shift in 18O for Sifrhippus than for Coryphodon, which suggests that hidden in the O-isotope record of temperature is information about rainfall variations during the PETM. To further support Bergmann’s Rule, changes in the size of Sifrhippus, do not correlate with the aridity index. So it seem that heat alone was responsible for dwarfing – the other possibility considered by the researchers was that decreased availability or quality of diet could have been responsible.

Reconstruction of Coryphodon. Image via Wikipedia

Very persistent cycles

Carboniferous shale
Carboniferous shale (Photo credit: tehsma)

The last of five written papers in my 1967 final-year exams was, as always, set by the ‘Prof’.  One question was ‘Rock and rhythm: discuss’ – it was the 60s. Cyclicity has been central to observational geology, especially to stratigraphy, the difference from that era being that rhythms have been quantified and the rock sequences they repeat have been linked to processes, in many cases global ones. The most familiar cyclicity to geologists brought up in Carboniferous coalfields, or indeed any area that preserves Carboniferous marine and terrestrial rocks, is the cyclothem of, roughly, seat-earth – coal – marine shale – fluviatile sandstone – seat-earth and so on. Matched to the duration of Carboniferous to Permian glaciations of the then southern hemisphere, and with the relatively  new realisation that global sea level goes down  and up as ice caps wax and wane, the likeliest explanation is eustatic regression and transgression of marine conditions in coastal areas in response to global climate change. Statistical analysis of cyclothemic sequences unearths frequency patterns that match well those of astronomical climate forcing proved for Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles.

The Milankovich signals of the Carboniferous are now part of the geological canon, but rocks of that age more finely layered than sediments of the tropical continental margins do occur. Among them are rhythmic sequences interpreted as lake deposits from high latitudes, akin to varves formed in such environments nowadays. Those from south-western Brazil present spectacular evidence of climate change in the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian (Franco, D.R. et al. 2012. Millennial-scale climate cycles in Permian-Carboniferous rhythmites: Permanent feature throughout geological time. Geology, v. 40, p. 19-22). They comprise couplets of fine-grained grey quartz sandstones from 1-10 cm thick interleaved with black mudstones on a scale of millimetres, which together build up around 45 m of sediment. Their remanent magnetism and magnetic susceptibility vary systematically with the two components. Frequency analysis of plots of both against depth in the sequence show clear signs of regular repetitions. Low-frequency peaks reveal the now well-known influence of astronomical forcing of Upper Palaeozoic climate, but it is in the lower amplitude, higher frequency part of the magnetic spectrum that surprises emerge from a variety of peaks. They are reminiscent of the Dansgaard-Oeschger events of the last Pleistocene glacial, marked by sudden warming and slow cooling while world climate cooled towards the last glacial maximum (~1.5 ka cyclicity) and Heinrich events, the ‘iceberg armadas’ that occurred on a less regular 3 to 8 ka basis. There are also signs of the 2.4 ka solar cycle. The relatively brief cycles would have been due to events in a very different continental configuration from today’s – that of the supercontinent Pangaea – and their very presence suggests a more general global influence over short-term climate shifts that has been around for 300 Ma or more.

OSTM/Jason-2's predecessor TOPEX/Poseidon caug...
El Niño effect on sea -surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Image via Wikipedia

Closer to us in time, and on a much finer time scale are almost 100 m of finely laminated shales from the marine Late Cretaceous of California’s Great Valley (Davies, A. et al. 2012. El Niño-Southern Oscillation variability from the late Cretaceous Marca Shale of California. Geology, v. 40, p. 15-18). The laminations contain fossil diatoms: organisms that are highly sensitive to environmental conditions and whose species are easily distinguished from each other. It emerges from studies of the diatoms in each lamination set that they record an annual cycle of seasonal change related to marine upwellings and their varying strengths, with repeated evidence for influx of fine sediment derived from land above sea level and for varying degrees of bioturbation that suggests periods of oxygenation. Spectral analysis of the intensity of bioturbation, which assumes the lamina are annual, and other fluctuating features reveals peaks that are remarkably close to those of the ENSO cyclicity that operates at present, at 2.1-2.8 and 4.1-6.3 a, as well as repetitions with a decadal frequency.

The annual cycles bear similar hallmarks to those imposed by the monsoonal conditions familiar from modern California, which fluctuated in the Late Cretaceous in much the same way as it does now – roughly speaking, alternating El Niño and La Niña conditions. That is not so surprising, as the relationship between California and the Pacific Ocean in the Cretaceous would not have been dissimilar from that now. The real importance of the study is that it concerns a period in Earth’s climate history characterised by greenhouse conditions, that some predict would create a permanent El Niño – an abnormal warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific that prevents the cold Humboldt Current along the Andean coast of South America from supplying nutrient to tropical waters. The very cyclicity recorded by the Marca Shale strongly suggests that the ENSO is a stable feature of the western Americas. Recent clear implications of ENSO having teleconnections that affect global climate, on this evidence, may not break down with anthropogenic global warming. This confirms similar studies from the Palaeogene and Neogene Periods.

Dust tied to climate

This TOMS image shows a record-setting Asian d...
Dust moving in April 2001 from arid areas in Central Asia and North Africa to the oceans. From NASA's Nimbus-7 satellite. Image via Wikipedia

At present the central areas of the oceans are wet deserts; too depleted in nutrients to support the photosynthesising base of a significant foot chain. Oddly, even when commonly known nutrients are brought to the ocean surface far from land by deep-sourced upwellings the effect on near-surface biomass is far from that expected. The key factor that is missing is dissolved divalent iron that acts as a minor nutrient for phytoplankton: even in deep ocean waters any such ferrous iron is quickly oxidised and precipitated as trivalent ferric compounds. One of the suggested means of geoengineering away any future climatic warming is to seed the far-off oceans reaches with soluble iron in the hope of triggering massive planktonic blooms, dead organisms sinking to be buried along with the their carbon content in the ocean-floor oozes. Retrospectively, it has been suggested that the slight mismatch between changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration and climate changes may be linked to fluctuating availability of iron dissolved from dust in ocean-surface waters, but so far that hypothesis has not been robustly tested. It is well known, however, that global cooling is accompanied by drying of continental climates and thereby an increase in the delivery of dust, even to polar ice caps where cores have shown dustiness to fluctuate with temperature.

Recently an ocean-floor sediment core from around 42° S has revealed a high-resolution record of the deposition of dust and iron at that location over the last 4 Ma (Martinez-Garcia, A. et al. 2011. Southern Ocean dust-climate coupling over the past 4 million years. Nature, v. 476, p. 312-315). In it one proxy for dust is the amount of organic compounds known as n-alkanes that are a major component of the waxes shed from plant leaves. Others are iron, titanium and thorium concentrations in the ooze. Dust proxies tally with land-ice volumes shown by the fluctuating d18O measured in bottom-dwelling foraminifera found as fossils in the core to form a convincing link between dust and climate over the Southern Ocean. Those proxies also match nicely the record of dust delivered to Antarctica that emerged from the 0.8 Ma Dome C ice core that was extracted and analysed by the EPICA consortium. The record shows boosts in iron and dust deposition at 2.7 Ma, when ice first took hold of northern high latitudes, and at 1.25 Ma when larger ice sheets began to develop and climate shifts switched to 100 ka cyclicity. Although the match between marine and glacial dust accumulation in the latter part of this mid-Pleistocene Transition is an important step forward in palaeoclimatology, it is a surprise that the new ocean-floor data is not plotted with the record of atmospheric CO2 in Antarctic ice bubbles: if there was a clear relationship that would have iced the cake.