Abrupt climate change at the Royal Meteorological Society

By Joy Singarayer

Recently I was excited to be invited to attend and talk at a Royal Meteorological Society meeting in London on abrupt climate change since the last ice age. The scope of the meeting was to highlight mechanisms driving rapid environmental change during the last 21,000 years, the techniques used to quantify these (there are no direct observations from thousands of years ago, of course), and to discuss the implications for how the climate may evolve in the future. With the palaeo focus being perhaps a bit left field for the Society, we were pleased to find that the meeting was fully booked well in advance, and that the audience, like the speakers, had a good balance of both genders and early-career/established scientists.

At the last glacial maximum, around 21,000 years ago, global average temperature was lower by around 5 degrees Celsius, and sea levels lower by some 120 m, due to the expansion of continental ice-sheets. The process of deglaciation to reach the warm conditions similar to today took roughly ten thousand years, which seems orders of magnitude slower than future anthropogenic climate change projections. However, this process did not occur steadily and monotonically, but was punctuated by several rapid climate change episodes (see Figure 1), just as the last glacial period was.

Figure 1. Screenshot from Liz Thomas’ talk. NGRIP ice core oxygen isotope record for the last 40,000 years. Rapid warming of the Bolling-Alleröd is highlighted and the slower Younger Dryas cooling. MWP-1A and MWP-1B are ice-sheet Melt Water Pulse inputs into the global ocean.

How rapid were some of those changes? Liz Thomas from the British Antarctic Survey reviewed records obtained from ice cores. In some cores (e.g. Greenland North GRIP core) it has been possible to count annual layers within the ice, providing extremely high resolution and accurately dated information. The ratio of different oxygen isotopes (δ18O) in the ice water tells us about the temperature over the ice core region and shows that during the Bolling-Allerod warm transition around 14.7 kyr ago temperatures over Greenland increased by around 10 degrees Celsius in only 1-3 years. Dust contained in the layers originates primarily from low latitude deserts and suggests strongly that changes to low latitude atmospheric circulation and the hydrological cycle preceded the high latitude temperature rise. 

These rapid warmings were likely triggered by strengthening of the Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation. Further talks at the meeting examined these mechanisms through modelling (Lauran Gregoire) and ocean palaeoarchives (Andrea Burke), as well as exploring the impacts on early human societies (William Davies), and then to considering changes during the Holocene interglacial and the impacts of early civilisations, making a bridge to discussion of future anthropogenic change. In the final discussion (Figure 2), led by Paul Valdes, it was noted that while there is no true past analogue to future projected changes, and the mechanisms are different, some of the palaeoclimate changes were of similar magnitudes and speeds to future projections. In this sense they provide useful case studies for model evaluation and for understanding the potential responses of ecosystems to rapid change. They also suggest the importance of Earth System interactions (biosphere, cryosphere, atmospheric chemistry) in producing rapid changes – interactions that are now being more fully incorporated into those climate models being used to simulate future projections of climate change.

Figure 2. The panel discussion at the conclusion of the recent Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on rapid climate change.

The meeting was organised by Ruza Ivanovic (University of Leeds) and chaired by Prof. Dame Jane Francis (British Antarctic Survey). The presentations (including recordings) and further details about the meeting may be found at the Royal Meteorological Society’s events page.



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