Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Ice age


Little is known about the ice age human occupation of the Pacific Coast of Canada. Here we present the results of a targeted investigation of a late Pleistocene shoreline on Calvert Island, British Columbia. Drawing upon existing geomorphic information that sea level in the area was 2-3 m lower than present between 14,000 and 11,000 years ago, we began a systematic search for archaeological remains dating to this time period beneath intertidal beach sediments. During subsurface testing, we uncovered human footprints impressed into a 13,000-year-old paleosol beneath beach sands at archaeological site EjTa-4. To date, our investigations at this site have revealed a total of 29 footprints of at least three different sizes. The results presented here add to the growing body of information pertaining to the early deglaciation and associated human presence on the west coast of Canada at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Concepts: Earth, Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Archaeology, Glaciology, Glacial period


Accurate quantification of the millennial-scale mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS) and its contribution to global sea-level rise remain challenging because of sparse in situ observations in key regions. Glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) is the ongoing response of the solid Earth to ice and ocean load changes occurring since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; ~21 thousand years ago) and may be used to constrain the GrIS deglaciation history. We use data from the Greenland Global Positioning System network to directly measure GIA and estimate basin-wide mass changes since the LGM. Unpredicted, large GIA uplift rates of +12 mm/year are found in southeast Greenland. These rates are due to low upper mantle viscosity in the region, from when Greenland passed over the Iceland hot spot about 40 million years ago. This region of concentrated soft rheology has a profound influence on reconstructing the deglaciation history of Greenland. We reevaluate the evolution of the GrIS since LGM and obtain a loss of 1.5-m sea-level equivalent from the northwest and southeast. These same sectors are dominating modern mass loss. We suggest that the present destabilization of these marine-based sectors may increase sea level for centuries to come. Our new deglaciation history and GIA uplift estimates suggest that studies that use the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission to infer present-day changes in the GrIS may have erroneously corrected for GIA and underestimated the mass loss by about 20 gigatons/year.

Concepts: Earth, Sea level, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glaciology, Post-glacial rebound


Polar temperatures over the last several million years have, at times, been slightly warmer than today, yet global mean sea level has been 6-9 metres higher as recently as the Last Interglacial (130,000 to 115,000 years ago) and possibly higher during the Pliocene epoch (about three million years ago). In both cases the Antarctic ice sheet has been implicated as the primary contributor, hinting at its future vulnerability. Here we use a model coupling ice sheet and climate dynamics-including previously underappreciated processes linking atmospheric warming with hydrofracturing of buttressing ice shelves and structural collapse of marine-terminating ice cliffs-that is calibrated against Pliocene and Last Interglacial sea-level estimates and applied to future greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. In this case atmospheric warming will soon become the dominant driver of ice loss, but prolonged ocean warming will delay its recovery for thousands of years.

Concepts: Water, Sea level, Ice sheet, Oceanography, Ocean, Antarctica, Ice age, West Antarctic Ice Sheet


Coralgal reefs preserve the signatures of sea-level fluctuations over Earth’s history, in particular since the Last Glacial Maximum 20,000 years ago, and are used in this study to indicate that punctuated sea-level rise events are more common than previously observed during the last deglaciation. Recognizing the nature of past sea-level rises (i.e., gradual or stepwise) during deglaciation is critical for informing models that predict future vertical behavior of global oceans. Here we present high-resolution bathymetric and seismic sonar data sets of 10 morphologically similar drowned reefs that grew during the last deglaciation and spread 120 km apart along the south Texas shelf edge. Herein, six commonly observed terrace levels are interpreted to be generated by several punctuated sea-level rise events forcing the reefs to shrink and backstep through time. These systematic and common terraces are interpreted to record punctuated sea-level rise events over timescales of decades to centuries during the last deglaciation, previously recognized only during the late Holocene.

Concepts: Water, Oceanography, Future, Nature, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glacial period


During ice-age cycles, continental ice volume kept pace with slow, multi-millennial scale, changes in climate forcing. Today, rapid greenhouse gas (GHG) increases have outpaced ice-volume responses, likely committing us to > 9 m of long-term sea-level rise (SLR). We portray a context of naturally precedented SLR from geological evidence, for comparison with historical observations and future projections. This context supports SLR of up to 0.9 (1.8) m by 2100 and 2.7 (5.0) m by 2200, relative to 2000, at 68% (95%) probability. Historical SLR observations and glaciological assessments track the upper 68% limit. Hence, modern change is rapid by past interglacial standards but within the range of ‘normal’ processes. The upper 95% limit offers a useful low probability/high risk value. Exceedance would require conditions without natural interglacial precedents, such as catastrophic ice-sheet collapse, or activation of major East Antarctic mass loss at sustained CO2 levels above 1000 ppmv.

Concepts: Sea level, Oceanography, Climate change, Natural gas, Radiative forcing, Greenhouse gas, Ice age, Interglacial


The past rapid growth of Northern Hemisphere continental ice sheets, which terminated warm and stable climate periods, is generally attributed to reduced summer insolation in boreal latitudes. Yet such summer insolation is near to its minimum at present, and there are no signs of a new ice age. This challenges our understanding of the mechanisms driving glacial cycles and our ability to predict the next glacial inception. Here we propose a critical functional relationship between boreal summer insolation and global carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration, which explains the beginning of the past eight glacial cycles and might anticipate future periods of glacial inception. Using an ensemble of simulations generated by an Earth system model of intermediate complexity constrained by palaeoclimatic data, we suggest that glacial inception was narrowly missed before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The missed inception can be accounted for by the combined effect of relatively high late-Holocene CO2 concentrations and the low orbital eccentricity of the Earth. Additionally, our analysis suggests that even in the absence of human perturbations no substantial build-up of ice sheets would occur within the next several thousand years and that the current interglacial would probably last for another 50,000 years. However, moderate anthropogenic cumulative CO2 emissions of 1,000 to 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon will postpone the next glacial inception by at least 100,000 years. Our simulations demonstrate that under natural conditions alone the Earth system would be expected to remain in the present delicately balanced interglacial climate state, steering clear of both large-scale glaciation of the Northern Hemisphere and its complete deglaciation, for an unusually long time.

Concepts: Oxygen, Carbon dioxide, Earth, Climate, Ice age, Global warming, Pluto, Milankovitch cycles


Cenozoic temperature, sea level and CO2 covariations provide insights into climate sensitivity to external forcings and sea-level sensitivity to climate change. Climate sensitivity depends on the initial climate state, but potentially can be accurately inferred from precise palaeoclimate data. Pleistocene climate oscillations yield a fast-feedback climate sensitivity of 3±1(°)C for a 4 W m(-2) CO2 forcing if Holocene warming relative to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) is used as calibration, but the error (uncertainty) is substantial and partly subjective because of poorly defined LGM global temperature and possible human influences in the Holocene. Glacial-to-interglacial climate change leading to the prior (Eemian) interglacial is less ambiguous and implies a sensitivity in the upper part of the above range, i.e. 3-4(°)C for a 4 W m(-2) CO2 forcing. Slow feedbacks, especially change of ice sheet size and atmospheric CO2, amplify the total Earth system sensitivity by an amount that depends on the time scale considered. Ice sheet response time is poorly defined, but we show that the slow response and hysteresis in prevailing ice sheet models are exaggerated. We use a global model, simplified to essential processes, to investigate state dependence of climate sensitivity, finding an increased sensitivity towards warmer climates, as low cloud cover is diminished and increased water vapour elevates the tropopause. Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Water, Climate, Climate change, Greenhouse gas, Pleistocene, Ice age, Global warming


Reconstructions of the vegetation of Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) are an enigma. Pollen-based analyses have suggested that Europe was largely covered by steppe and tundra, and forests persisted only in small refugia. Climate-vegetation model simulations on the other hand have consistently suggested that broad areas of Europe would have been suitable for forest, even in the depths of the last glaciation. Here we reconcile models with data by demonstrating that the highly mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that inhabited Europe at the LGM could have substantially reduced forest cover through the ignition of wildfires. Similar to hunter-gatherers of the more recent past, Upper Paleolithic humans were masters of the use of fire, and preferred inhabiting semi-open landscapes to facilitate foraging, hunting and travel. Incorporating human agency into a dynamic vegetation-fire model and simulating forest cover shows that even small increases in wildfire frequency over natural background levels resulted in large changes in the forested area of Europe, in part because trees were already stressed by low atmospheric CO2 concentrations and the cold, dry, and highly variable climate. Our results suggest that the impact of humans on the glacial landscape of Europe may be one of the earliest large-scale anthropogenic modifications of the earth system.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Earth, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glacial period


Paleo-climate records and geodynamic modelling indicate the existence of complex interactions between glacial sea level changes, volcanic degassing and atmospheric CO2, which may have modulated the climate system’s descent into the last ice age. Between ∼85 and 70 kyr ago, during an interval of decreasing axial tilt, the orbital component in global temperature records gradually declined, while atmospheric CO2, instead of continuing its long-term correlation with Antarctic temperature, remained relatively stable. Here, based on novel global geodynamic models and the joint interpretation of paleo-proxy data as well as biogeochemical simulations, we show that a sea level fall in this interval caused enhanced pressure-release melting in the uppermost mantle, which may have induced a surge in magma and CO2 fluxes from mid-ocean ridges and oceanic hotspot volcanoes. Our results reveal a hitherto unrecognized negative feedback between glaciation and atmospheric CO2 predominantly controlled by marine volcanism on multi-millennial timescales of ∼5,000-15,000 years.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Climate, Ocean, Volcano, Ice age, Magma, Mantle plume


A likely consequence of global warming will be the redistribution of Earth’s rain belts, affecting water availability for many of Earth’s inhabitants. We consider three ways in which planetary warming might influence the global distribution of precipitation. The first possibility is that rainfall in the tropics will increase and that the subtropics and mid-latitudes will become more arid. A second possibility is that Earth’s thermal equator, around which the planet’s rain belts and dry zones are organized, will migrate northward. This northward shift will be a consequence of the Northern Hemisphere, with its large continental area, warming faster than the Southern Hemisphere, with its large oceanic area. A third possibility is that both of these scenarios will play out simultaneously. We review paleoclimate evidence suggesting that (i) the middle latitudes were wetter during the last glacial maximum, (ii) a northward shift of the thermal equator attended the abrupt Bølling-Allerød climatic transition ~14.6 thousand years ago, and (iii) a southward shift occurred during the more recent Little Ice Age. We also inspect trends in seasonal surface heating between the hemispheres over the past several decades. From these clues, we predict that there will be a seasonally dependent response in rainfall patterns to global warming. During boreal summer, in which the rate of recent warming has been relatively uniform between the hemispheres, wet areas will get wetter and dry regions will become drier. During boreal winter, rain belts and drylands will expand northward in response to differential heating between the hemispheres.

Concepts: Earth, Precipitation, Climate, Tropic of Cancer, Season, Ice age, Global warming, Equator