PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Earth is currently in what climatologists call an interglacial period, a warm pulse between long, cold ice ages when glaciers dominate our planet’s higher latitudes. For the past million years, these glacial-interglacial cycles have repeated roughly on a 100,000-year cycle. Now a team of Brown University researchers has a new explanation for that timing and why the cycle was different before a million years ago.
Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers show that two periodic variations in Earth’s orbit combine on a 100,000-year cycle to cause an expansion of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere. Compared to open ocean waters, that ice reflects more of the sun’s rays back into space, substantially reducing the amount of solar energy the planet absorbs. As a result, global temperature cools.
“The 100,000-year pace of glacial-interglacial periods has been difficult to explain,” said Jung-Eun Lee, an assistant professor in Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Studies and the study’s lead author. “What we were able to show is the importance of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere along with orbital forcings in setting the pace for the glacial-interglacial cycle.”
The research is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Orbit and climate
In the 1930s, Serbian scientist Milutin Milankovitch identified three different recurring changes in Earth’s orbital pattern. Each of these Milankovitch Cycles can influence the amount of sunlight the planet receives, which in turn can influence climate. The changes cycle through every 100,000, 41,000 and 21,000 years.
The problem is that the 100,000-year cycle alone is the weakest of the three in the degree to which it affects solar radiation. So why that cycle would be the one that sets the pace of glacial cycle is a mystery. But this new study shows the mechanism through which the 100,000-year cycle and the 21,000-year cycle work together to drive Earth’s glacial cycle.
The 21,000-year cycle deals with precession — the change in orientation of Earth’s tilted rotational axis, which creates Earth’s changing seasons. When the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, it gets more sunlight and experiences summer. At the same time, the Southern Hemisphere is tilted away, so it gets less sunlight and experiences winter. But the direction that the axis points slowly changes — or precesses — with respect to Earth’s orbit. As a result, the position in the orbit where the seasons change migrates slightly from year to year. Earth’s orbit is elliptical, which means the distance between the planet and the sun changes depending on where we are in the orbital ellipse. So precession basically means that the seasons can occur when the planet is closest or farthest from the sun, or somewhere in between, which alters the seasons’ intensity.
In other words, precession causes a period during the 21,000-year cycle when Northern Hemisphere summer happens around the time when the Earth is closest to the sun, which would make those summers slightly warmer. Six months later, when the Southern Hemisphere has its summer, the Earth would be at its furthest point from the sun, making the Southern Hemisphere summers a little cooler. Every 10,500 years, the scenario is the opposite.
In terms of average global temperature, one might not expect precession to matter much. Whichever hemisphere is closer to the sun in its summer, the other hemisphere will be farther away during its summer, so the effects would just wash themselves out. However, this study shows that there can indeed be an effect on global temperature if there’s a difference in the way the two hemispheres absorb solar energy — which there is.
That difference has to do with each hemisphere’s capacity to grow sea ice. Because of the arrangement of the continents, there’s much more room for sea ice to grow in the Southern Hemisphere. The oceans of the Northern Hemisphere are interrupted by continents, which limits the extent to which ice can grow. So when the precessional cycle causes a series of cooler summers in the Southern Hemisphere, sea ice can expand dramatically because there’s less summer melting.