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Paleoclimate concepts

April 14, 2001

Interpretation of paleoclimate records requires an understanding of Earth’s climate system, the causes (forcings) of climate changes, and the processes that amplify (positive feedback) or damp (negative feedback) these changes. Paleoclimatologists reconstruct the history of climate from proxies, which are those characteristics of sedimentary deposits that preserve paleoclimate information. A great range of physical, chemical, isotopic, and biological characteristics of lake and ocean sediments, ice cores, cave formations, tree rings, the land surface itself, and more are used to reconstruct past climate. Ages of climate events are obtained by counting annual layers, measuring effects of the decay of radioactive atoms, assessing other changes that accumulate through time at rates that can be assessed accurately, and using time-markers to correlate sediments with others that have had their ages measured more accurately. Not all questions about the history of Earth’s climate can be answered through paleoclimatology: in some cases the necessary sediments are not preserved, or the climatic variable of interest is not recorded in the sediments. Nonetheless, many questions can be answered from the available information. An overview of the history of Arctic climate during the past 65 million years (m.y.) shows a long-term irregular cooling for tens of millions of years. As ice became established in the Arctic, it grew and shrank for tens of thousands of years in regular cycles. During at least the most recent of these cycles, shorter lived, large, and rapid fluctuations occurred, especially around the North Atlantic Ocean. The last 11,000 years or so have remained generally warm and relatively stable, but with small climate changes of varying spacing and size. Assessment of the causes of climate changes, and the records of those causes, shows that reduction in atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentration and changes in continental positions were important in the cooling trend throughout tens of millions of years. The cycling in ice extent was paced by features of Earth’s orbit and amplified by the effects of the ice itself, changes in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and additional feedbacks. Abrupt climate changes were linked to changes in the circulation of the ocean and the extent of sea ice. Changes in the Sun’s output and in Earth’s orbit, volcanic eruptions, and other factors have contributed to the natural climate changes since the end of the last ice age.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2001
Title Paleoclimate concepts
Authors Richard B. Ally, Joan J. Fitzpatrick, J. Brigham-Grette, Geoffery L. Miller, Daniel R. Muhs, Leonid Polyak
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70209577
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center