Understanding past and future climate

The notion that scientists understand how changes in Earth’s orbit affect climate well enough for estimating long-term natural climate trends that underlie any anthropogenic climate change is challenged by findings published this week. The new research was conducted by a team led by Professor Eelco Rohling of the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science hosted at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

“Understanding how climate has responded to past change should help reveal how human activities may have affected, or will affect, Earth’s climate. One approach for this is to study past interglacials, the warm periods between glacial periods within an ice age,” said Rohling.

He continued: “Note that we have here focused on the long-term natural climate trends that are related to changes in Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Our study is therefore relevant to the long-term climate future, and not so much for the next decades or century.”

The team, which included scientists from the Universities of Tuebingen (Germany) and Bristol, compared the current warm interglacial period with one 400,000 years ago (marine isotope stage 11, or MIS-11).

Many aspects of the Earth-Sun orbital configuration during MIS-11 were similar to those of the current interglacial. For this reason, MIS-11 is often considered as a potential analogue for future climate development in the absence of human influence.

Previous studies had used the analogy to suggest that the current interglacial should have ended 2-2.5 thousand years ago. So why has it remained so warm?

According to the’anthropogenic hypothesis’, long-term climate impacts of man’s deforestation activities and early methane and carbon dioxide emissions have artificially held us in warm interglacial conditions, which have persisted since the end of the Pleistocene, about 11 400 years ago.

To address this issue, the researchers used a new high-resolution record of sea levels, which reflect ice volume. This record, which is continuous through both interglacials, is based on the ‘Red Sea method’ developed by Rohling.

Water passes between the Red Sea and the open ocean only through the shallow Strait of Bab-el-Mandab, which narrows as sea levels drop, reducing water exchange. Evaporation within the Red Sea increases its salinity, or saltiness, and changes the relative abundance of stable oxygen isotopes.

By analysing oxygen isotope ratios in tiny marine creatures called foraminiferans preserved in sediments that were deposited at the bottom of the Red Sea, the scientists reconstructed past sea levels, which were corroborated by comparison with the fossilised remains of coral reefs.

The researchers found that the current interglacial has indeed lasted some 2.0????.5 millennia longer than predicted by the currently dominant theory for the way in which orbital changes control the ice-age cycles. This theory is based on the intensity of solar radiation reaching the Earth at latitude 65 degrees North on 21 June, the northern hemisphere Summer solstice.

But the anomaly vanished when the researchers considered a rival theory, which looks at the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth the same latitude during the summer months. Under this theory, sea levels could remain high for another two thousand years or so, even without greenhouse warming.

“Future research should more precisely narrow down the influence of orbital changes on climate,” said Rohling: “This is crucial for a better understanding of underlying natural climate trends over long, millennial timescales. And that is essential for a better understanding of any potential long-term impacts on climate due to man’s activities.”

The study was funded by the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Council and the German Science Foundation.


Rohling, E.J., et al., Comparison between Holocene and Marine Isotope Stage-11 sea-level histories. Earth and Planetary Science Letters (published online 2010). doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2009.12.054

The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton is the UK’s focus for ocean science. It is one of the world’s leading institutions devoted to research, teaching and technology development in ocean and earth science. Over 500 research scientists, lecturing, support and seagoing staff are based at the centre’s purpose-built waterside campus in Southampton along with over 700 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton is a collaboration between the University of Southampton and the Natural Environment Research Council. The NERC royal research ships RRS James Cook and RRS Discovery are based at NOCS as is the National Marine Equipment Pool which includes Autosub and Isis, two of the world’s deepest diving research vehicles.

From April 1, 2010, NERC-managed activity at NOCS joins forces with the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory to form a new, national research organisation – the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). The NOC will work in partnership with the UK marine research community to deliver integrated marine science and technology from the coast to the deep ocean. The University of Southampton will be one of the NOC’s two hosting partners.

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