Paleoclimatology (in British spelling, palaeoclimatology) is the study
of changes in climate taken on the scale of the entire history of
Earth. It uses a variety of proxy methods from the
Earth and life
sciences to obtain data previously preserved within things such as
rocks, sediments, ice sheets, tree rings, corals, shells, and
microfossils. It then uses the records to determine the past states of
the Earth's various climate regions and its atmospheric system.
Studies of past changes in the environment and biodiversity often
reflect on the current situation, specifically the impact of climate
on mass extinctions and biotic recovery.
2 Reconstructing ancient climates
2.3 Sedimentary content
2.5 Landscapes and landforms
3 Notable climate events in
4 History of the atmosphere
4.1 Earliest atmosphere
4.2 Second atmosphere
4.3 Third atmosphere
Climate during geological ages
6.1 Internal processes and forcings
6.2 External forcings
7 See also
9 External links
History of climate change science
History of climate change science and Historical
The scientific study field of paleoclimate began to form in the early
19th century, when discoveries about glaciations and natural changes
in Earth's past climate helped to understand the greenhouse effect.The
first observations which had a real scientific basis were probably
those by John Hardcastle in New Zealand, in the 1880s. He noted that
the loess deposits at Timaru in the South Island recorded changes in
climate; he called the loess a 'climate register'.
Reconstructing ancient climates
Palaeotemperature graphs compressed together
The oxygen content in the atmosphere over the last billion years
Main article: Proxy (climate)
Paleoclimatologists employ a wide variety of techniques to deduce
Mountain glaciers and the polar ice caps/ice sheets provide much data
in paleoclimatology. Ice-coring projects in the ice caps of Greenland
Antarctica have yielded data going back several hundred thousand
years, over 800,000 years in the case of the EPICA project.
Air trapped within fallen snow becomes encased in tiny bubbles as the
snow is compressed into ice in the glacier under the weight of later
years' snow. The trapped air has proven a tremendously valuable source
for direct measurement of the composition of air from the time the ice
Layering can be observed because of seasonal pauses in ice
accumulation and can be used to establish chronology, associating
specific depths of the core with ranges of time.
Changes in the layering thickness can be used to determine changes in
precipitation or temperature.
Oxygen-18 quantity changes (δ18O) in ice layers represent changes in
average ocean surface temperature.
Water molecules containing the
heavier O-18 evaporate at a higher temperature than water molecules
containing the normal
Oxygen-16 isotope. The ratio of O-18 to O-16
will be higher as temperature increases. It also depends on other
factors such as the water's salinity and the volume of water locked up
in ice sheets. Various cycles in those isotope ratios have been
Pollen has been observed in the ice cores and can be used to
understand which plants were present as the layer formed. Pollen is
produced in abundance and its distribution is typically well
understood. A pollen count for a specific layer can be produced by
observing the total amount of pollen categorized by type (shape) in a
controlled sample of that layer. Changes in plant frequency over time
can be plotted through statistical analysis of pollen counts in the
core. Knowing which plants were present leads to an understanding of
precipitation and temperature, and types of fauna present. Palynology
includes the study of pollen for these purposes.
Volcanic ash is contained in some layers, and can be used to establish
the time of the layer's formation. Each volcanic event distributed ash
with a unique set of properties (shape and color of particles,
chemical signature). Establishing the ash's source will establish a
range of time to associate with layer of ice.
Main article: Dendroclimatology
Climatic information can be obtained through an understanding of
changes in tree growth. Generally, trees respond to changes in
climatic variables by speeding up or slowing down growth, which in
turn is generally reflected by a greater or lesser thickness in growth
rings. Different species, however, respond to changes in climatic
variables in different ways. A tree-ring record is established by
compiling information from many living trees in a specific area.
Older intact wood that has escaped decay can extend the time covered
by the record by matching the ring depth changes to contemporary
specimens. By using that method, some areas have tree-ring records
dating back a few thousand years. Older wood not connected to a
contemporary record can be dated generally with radiocarbon
techniques. A tree-ring record can be used to produce information
regarding precipitation, temperature, hydrology, and fire
corresponding to a particular area.
On a longer time scale, geologists must refer to the sedimentary
record for data.
Sediments, sometimes lithified to form rock, may contain remnants of
preserved vegetation, animals, plankton, or pollen, which may be
characteristic of certain climatic zones.
Biomarker molecules such as the alkenones may yield information about
their temperature of formation.
Chemical signatures, particularly
Mg/Ca ratio of calcite in
Foraminifera tests, can be used to reconstruct past temperature.
Isotopic ratios can provide further information. Specifically, the
δ18O record responds to changes in temperature and ice volume, and
the δ13C record reflects a range of factors, which are often
difficult to disentangle.
Sea floor core sample labelled to identify the exact spot on the sea
floor where the sample was taken. Sediments from nearby locations can
show significant differences in chemical and biological composition.
On a longer time scale, the rock record may show signs of sea level
rise and fall, and features such as "fossilised" sand dunes can be
identified. Scientists can get a grasp of long term climate by
studying sedimentary rock going back billions of years. The division
of earth history into separate periods is largely based on visible
changes in sedimentary rock layers that demarcate major changes in
conditions. Often, they include major shifts in climate.
Corals (see also sclerochronology)
Coral "rings" are similar to tree rings except that they respond to
different things, such as the water temperature, freshwater influx, pH
changes, and wave action. From there, certain equipment can be used to
derive the sea surface temperature and water salinity from the past
few centuries. The δ18O of coralline red algae provides a useful
proxy of the combined sea surface temperature and sea surface salinity
at high latitudes and the tropics, where many traditional techniques
Landscapes and landforms
Within climatic geomorphology one approach is to study relict
landforms to infer ancient climates. Being often concerned about
past climates climatic geomorphology is considered sometimes to be a
theme of historical geology.
Climatic geomorphology is of limited
use to study recent (Quaternary, Holocene) large climate changes since
there are seldom discernible in the geomorphological record.
A multinational consortium, the European Project for Ice Coring in
Antarctica (EPICA), has drilled an ice core in Dome C on the East
Antarctic ice sheet and retrieved ice from roughly 800,000 years
ago. The international ice core community has, under the auspices
of International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences (IPICS), defined a
priority project to obtain the oldest possible ice core record from
Antarctica, an ice core record reaching back to or towards 1.5 million
years ago. The deep marine record, the source of most isotopic
data, exists only on oceanic plates, which are eventually subducted:
the oldest remaining material is 200 million years old. Older
sediments are also more prone to corruption by diagenesis. Resolution
and confidence in the data decrease over time.
Notable climate events in
See also: List of periods and events in climate history, Geologic time
scale, and History of Earth
Knowledge of precise climatic events decreases as the record goes back
in time, but some notable climate events are known:
Faint young Sun paradox
Faint young Sun paradox (start)
Huronian glaciation (~2400 Mya
Earth completely covered in ice
probably due to Great Oxygenation Event)
Later Neoproterozoic Snowball
Earth (~600 Mya, precursor to the
Andean-Saharan glaciation (~450 Mya)
Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse
Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse (~300 Mya)
Permian–Triassic extinction event
Permian–Triassic extinction event (251.4 Mya)
Oceanic anoxic events (~120 Mya, 93 Mya, and others)
Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event
Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (66 Mya)
Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum
Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (Paleocene–Eocene, 55Mya)
Younger Dryas/The Big Freeze (~11,000 BC)
Holocene climatic optimum (~7000–3000 BC)
Extreme weather events of 535–536 (535–536 AD)
Medieval Warm Period
Medieval Warm Period (900–1300)
Little Ice Age
Little Ice Age (1300–1800)
Year Without a Summer
Year Without a Summer (1816)
History of the atmosphere
view • discuss • edit
Earliest sexual reproduction
Axis scale: million years
Orange labels: ice ages.
Human timeline and Nature timeline
Earth and History of Earth
The first atmosphere would have consisted of gases in the solar
nebula, primarily hydrogen. In addition, there would probably have
been simple hydrides such as those now found in gas giants like
Jupiter and Saturn, notably water vapor, methane, and ammonia. As the
solar nebula dissipated, the gases would have escaped, partly driven
off by the solar wind.
The next atmosphere, consisting largely of nitrogen, carbon dioxide,
and inert gases, was produced by outgassing from volcanism,
supplemented by gases produced during the late heavy bombardment of
Earth by huge asteroids. A major part of carbon dioxide emissions
were soon dissolved in water and built up carbonate sediments.
Water-related sediments have been found dating from as early as 3.8
billion years ago. About 3.4 billion years ago, nitrogen was the
major part of the then stable "second atmosphere". An influence of
life has to be taken into account rather soon in the history of the
atmosphere because hints of early life forms have been dated to as
early as 3.5 billion years ago. The fact that it is not perfectly
in line with the 30% lower solar radiance (compared to today) of the
early Sun has been described as the "faint young Sun paradox".
The geological record, however, shows a continually relatively warm
surface during the complete early temperature record of
Earth with the
exception of one cold glacial phase about 2.4 billion years ago. In
the late Archaean eon, an oxygen-containing atmosphere began to
develop, apparently from photosynthesizing cyanobacteria (see Great
Oxygenation Event) which have been found as stromatolite fossils from
2.7 billion years ago. The early basic carbon isotopy (isotope ratio
proportions) was very much in line with what is found today,
suggesting that the fundamental features of the carbon cycle were
established as early as 4 billion years ago.
The constant rearrangement of continents by plate tectonics influences
the long-term evolution of the atmosphere by transferring carbon
dioxide to and from large continental carbonate stores. Free oxygen
did not exist in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago,
during the Great Oxygenation Event, and its appearance is indicated by
the end of the banded iron formations. Until then, any oxygen produced
by photosynthesis was consumed by oxidation of reduced materials,
notably iron. Molecules of free oxygen did not start to accumulate in
the atmosphere until the rate of production of oxygen began to exceed
the availability of reducing materials. That point was a shift from a
reducing atmosphere to an oxidizing atmosphere. O2 showed major
variations until reaching a steady state of more than 15% by the end
of the Precambrian. The following time span was the Phanerozoic
eon, during which oxygen-breathing metazoan life forms began to
The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere has fluctuated over the last
600 million years, reaching a peak of 35% during the Carboniferous
period, significantly higher than today's 21%. Two main processes
govern changes in the atmosphere: plants use carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere, releasing oxygen and the breakdown of pyrite and volcanic
eruptions release sulfur into the atmosphere, which oxidizes and hence
reduces the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. However, volcanic
eruptions also release carbon dioxide, which plants can convert to
oxygen. The exact cause of the variation of the amount of oxygen in
the atmosphere is not known. Periods with much oxygen in the
atmosphere are associated with rapid development of animals. Today's
atmosphere contains 21% oxygen, which is high enough for rapid
development of animals.
Climate during geological ages
Timeline of glaciations, shown in blue
See also: Timeline of glaciation
The Huronian glaciation, is the first known glaciation in Earth's
history, and lasted from 2400-2100 million years ago.
Cryogenian glaciation lasted from 720-635 million years ago.
Andean-Saharan glaciation lasted from 450–420 million years ago.
Karoo glaciation lasted from 360–260 million years ago.
Quaternary glaciation is the current glaciation period and began
2.58 million years ago.
Main article: Precambrian
The climate of the late
Precambrian showed some major glaciation
events spreading over much of the earth. At this time the continents
were bunched up in the
Rodinia supercontinent. Massive deposits of
tillites and anomalous isotopic signatures are found, which gave rise
to the Snowball
Earth hypothesis. As the
Proterozoic Eon drew to a
Earth started to warm up. By the dawn of the Cambrian and
the Phanerozoic, life forms were abundant in the Cambrian explosion
with average global temperatures of about 22 °C.
500 million years of climate change
Main article: Phanerozoic
Major drivers for the preindustrial ages have been variations of the
sun, volcanic ashes and exhalations, relative movements of the earth
towards the sun, and tectonically induced effects as for major sea
currents, watersheds, and ocean oscillations. In the early
Phanerozoic, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have
been linked to driving or amplifying increased global
temperatures. Royer et al. 2004 found a climate sensitivity
for the rest of the
Phanerozoic which was calculated to be similar to
today's modern range of values.
The difference in global mean temperatures between a fully glacial
Earth and an ice free
Earth is estimated at approximately 10 °C,
though far larger changes would be observed at high latitudes and
smaller ones at low latitudes. One requirement for
the development of large scale ice sheets seems to be the arrangement
of continental land masses at or near the poles. The constant
rearrangement of continents by plate tectonics can also shape
long-term climate evolution. However, the presence or absence of land
masses at the poles is not sufficient to guarantee glaciations or
exclude polar ice caps. Evidence exists of past warm periods in
Earth's climate when polar land masses similar to
Antarctica were home
to deciduous forests rather than ice sheets.
The relatively warm local minimum between
along with an increase of subduction and mid-ocean ridge volcanism
 due to the breakup of the
Superimposed on the long-term evolution between hot and cold climates
have been many short-term fluctuations in climate similar to, and
sometimes more severe than, the varying glacial and interglacial
states of the present ice age. Some of the most severe fluctuations,
such as the Paleocene-
Eocene Thermal Maximum, may be related to rapid
climate changes due to sudden collapses of natural methane clathrate
reservoirs in the oceans.
A similar, single event of induced severe climate change after a
meteorite impact has been proposed as reason for the
Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Other major thresholds are
the Permian-Triassic, and
Ordovician-Silurian extinction events
Ordovician-Silurian extinction events with
various reasons suggested.
Ice core data for the past 800,000 years (x-axis values represent "age
before 1950", so today's date is on the left side of the graph and
older time on the right). Blue curve is temperature, red curve is
atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and brown curve is dust
fluxes. Note length of glacial-interglacial cycles averages
Main article: Quaternary
See also: List of large-scale temperature reconstructions of the last
Quaternary sub-era includes the current climate. There has been a
cycle of ice ages for the past 2.2–2.1 million years (starting
Quaternary in the late
Note in the graphic on the right the strong 120,000-year periodicity
of the cycles, and the striking asymmetry of the curves. This
asymmetry is believed to result from complex interactions of feedback
mechanisms. It has been observed that ice ages deepen by progressive
steps, but the recovery to interglacial conditions occurs in one big
Holocene Temperature Variations
The graph on the left shows the temperature change over the past
12,000 years, from various sources. The thick black curve is an
Radiative forcings, IPCC (2007)
Climate change § Causes
The climate forcing is the difference of radiant energy (sunlight)
received by the
Earth and the outgoing longwave radiation back to
space. The radiative forcing is quantified based on the CO2 amount in
the tropopause, in units of watts per square meter to the Earth's
surface. Dependent on the radiative balance of incoming and
outgoing energy, the
Earth either warms up or cools down. Earth
radiative balance originates from changes in solar insolation and the
concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols.
Climate change may be
due to internal processes in
Earth sphere's and/or following external
Internal processes and forcings
The Earth's climate system involves the study of the atmosphere,
biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere, and the sum
of these processes from
Earth sphere's is considered the processes
affecting the climate.
Greenhouse gases act as the internal forcing of
the climate system. Particular interests in climate science and
paleoclimatology focuses on the study of
Earth climate sensitivity, in
response to the sum of forcings.
Thermohaline circulation (Hydrosphere)
Milankovitch cycles determine
Earth distance and position to the
Sun. The solar insolation is the total amount of solar radiation
received by Earth.
Volcanic eruptions are considered an external forcing.
Human changes of the composition of the atmosphere or land use.
On timescales of millions of years, the uplift of mountain ranges and
subsequent weathering processes of rocks and soils and the subduction
of tectonic plates, are an important part of the carbon
cycle. The weathering sequesters CO2, by the reaction of
minerals with chemicals (especially silicate weathering with CO2) and
thereby removing CO2 from the atmosphere and reducing the radiative
forcing. The opposite effect is volcanism, responsible for the natural
greenhouse effect, by emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, thus affecting
glaciation (Ice Age) cycles.
James Hansen suggested that humans emit
CO2 10,000 times faster than natural processes have done in the
Ice sheet dynamics and continental positions (and linked vegetation
changes) have been important factors in the long term evolution of the
earth's climate. There is also a close correlation between CO2 and
temperature, where CO2 has a strong control over global temperatures
Paleothermometry, the study of ancient temperatures
Paleotempestology, the study of past tropical cyclone activity
Paleomap Map of different ages and climates of the earth
Table of historic and prehistoric climate indicators
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Effect on plant biodiversity
Effects on health
Effects on humans
Effects on marine mammals
Extinction risk from global warming
Fisheries and climate change
Industry and society
Polar stratospheric cloud
Retreat of glaciers since 1850
Runaway climate change
Shutdown of thermohaline circulation
Clean Development Mechanism
Bali Road Map
2009 United Nations
Climate Change Conference
Climate Change Programme
Climate Change Roundtable
Climate Change Programme
United States withdrawal
Regional climate change initiatives in the United States
List of climate change initiatives
Carbon capture and storage
Efficient energy use
Individual action on climate change
Carbon dioxide removal
Climate change mitigation scenarios
Individual and political action on climate change
Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation
Climate Action Plan
Damming glacial lakes
Avoiding dangerous climate change
Land allocation decision support system
Glossary of climate change
Index of climate change articles