What Caused the Ice Ages and Other Important Climate Changes Before the Industrial Era?
Climate on Earth has changed on all time scales, including long before human activity could have played a role. Great progress has been made in understanding the causes and mechanisms of these climate changes. Changes in Earth's radiation balance were the principal driver of past climate changes, but the causes of such changes are varied. For each case - be it the Ice Ages, the warmth at the time of the dinosaurs or the fluctuations of the past millennium - the specific causes must be established individually. In many cases, this can now be done with good confidence, and many past climate changes can be reproduced with quantitative models.
Global climate is determined by the radiation balance of the planet (see FAQ 1.1). There are three fundamental ways the Earth's radiation balance can change, thereby causing a climate change: (1) changing the incoming solar radiation (e.g., by changes in the Earth's orbit or in the Sun itself), (2) changing the fraction of solar radiation that is reflected (this fraction is called the albedo - it can be changed, for example, by changes in cloud cover, small particles called aerosols or land cover), and (3) altering the longwave energy radiated back to space (e.g., by changes in greenhouse gas concentrations). In addition, local climate also depends on how heat is distributed by winds and ocean currents. All of these factors have played a role in past climate changes.
Starting with the ice ages that have come and gone in regular cycles for the past nearly three million years, there is strong evidence that these are linked to regular variations in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, the so-called Milankovitch cycles (Figure 1). These cycles change the amount of solar radiation received at each latitude in each season (but hardly affect the global annual mean), and they can be calculated with astronomical precision. There is still some discussion about how exactly this starts and ends ice ages, but many studies suggest that the amount of summer sunshine on northern continents is crucial: if it drops below a critical value, snow from the past winter does not melt away in summer and an ice sheet starts to grow as more and more snow accumulates. Climate model simulations confirm that an Ice Age can indeed be started in this way, while simple conceptual models have been used to successfully 'hindcast' the onset of past glaciations based on the orbital changes. The next large reduction in northern summer insolation, similar to those that started past Ice Ages, is due to begin in 30,000 years.
Although it is not their primary cause, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) also plays an important role in the ice ages. Antarctic ice core data show that CO2 concentration is low in the cold glacial times (~190 ppm), and high in the warm interglacials (~280 ppm); atmospheric CO2 follows temperature changes in Antarctica with a lag of some hundreds of years. Because the climate changes at the beginning and end of ice ages take several thousand years, most of these changes are affected by a positive CO2 feedback; that is, a small initial cooling due to the Milankovitch cycles is subsequently amplified as the CO2 concentration falls. Model simulations of ice age climate (see discussion in Section 6.4.1) yield realistic results only if the role of CO2 is accounted for.
During the last ice age, over 20 abrupt and dramatic climate shifts occurred that are particularly prominent in records around the northern Atlantic (see Section 6.4). These differ from the glacial-interglacial cycles in that they probably do not involve large changes in global mean temperature: changes are not synchronous in Greenland and Antarctica, and they are in the opposite direction in the South and North Atlantic. This means that a major change in global radiation balance would not have been needed to cause these shifts; a redistribution of heat within the climate system would have sufficed. There is indeed strong evidence that changes in ocean circulation and heat transport can explain many features of these abrupt events; sediment data and model simulations show that some of these changes could have been triggered by instabilities in the ice sheets surrounding the Atlantic at the time, and the associated freshwater release into the ocean.
Much warmer times have also occurred in climate history - during most of the past 500 million years, Earth was probably completely free of ice sheets (geologists can tell from the marks ice leaves on rock), unlike today, when Greenland and Antarctica are ice-covered. Data on greenhouse gas abundances going back beyond a million years, that is, beyond the reach of antarctic ice cores, are still rather uncertain, but analysis of geological samples suggests that the warm ice-free periods coincide with high atmospheric CO2 levels. On million-year time scales, CO2 levels change due to tectonic activity, which affects the rates of CO2 exchange of ocean and atmosphere with the solid Earth. See Section 6.3 for more about these ancient climates.
Another likely cause of past climatic changes is variations in the energy output of the Sun. Measurements over recent decades show that the solar output varies slightly (by close to 0.1%) in an 11-year cycle. Sunspot observations (going back to the 17th century), as well as data from isotopes generated by cosmic radiation, provide evidence for longer-term changes in solar activity. Data correlation and model simulations indicate that solar variability and volcanic activity are likely to be leading reasons for climate variations during the past millennium, before the start of the industrial era.
These examples illustrate that different climate changes in the past had different causes. The fact that natural factors caused climate changes in the past does not mean that the current climate change is natural. By analogy, the fact that forest fires have long been caused naturally by lightning strikes does not mean that fires cannot also be caused by a careless camper. FAQ 2.1 addresses the question of how human influences compare with natural ones in their contributions to recent climate change.