The Info List - Paleoclimatology

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(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.[1]


1 History 2 Reconstructing ancient climates

2.1 Ice 2.2 Dendroclimatology 2.3 Sedimentary content 2.4 Sclerochronology 2.5 Landscapes and landforms 2.6 Limitations

3 Notable climate events in Earth
history 4 History of the atmosphere

4.1 Earliest atmosphere 4.2 Second atmosphere 4.3 Third atmosphere

5 Climate
during geological ages

5.1 Precambrian
climate 5.2 Phanerozoic
climate 5.3 Quaternary

6 Climate

6.1 Internal processes and forcings 6.2 External forcings 6.3 Mechanisms

7 See also 8 References

8.1 Notes 8.2 Bibliography

9 External links

History[edit] Main articles: History of climate change science
History of climate change science
and Historical climatology 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'.[2] Reconstructing ancient climates[edit]

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 ancient climates. Ice[edit] Mountain glaciers and the polar ice caps/ice sheets provide much data in paleoclimatology. Ice-coring projects in the ice caps of Greenland and 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 was formed. 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 detected. 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
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.

Dendroclimatology[edit] 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. Sedimentary content[edit] 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.

Sedimentary facies 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 are limited.[3][4]

Landscapes and landforms[edit] Within climatic geomorphology one approach is to study relict landforms to infer ancient climates.[5] Being often concerned about past climates climatic geomorphology is considered sometimes to be a theme of historical geology.[6] Climatic geomorphology
Climatic geomorphology
is of limited use to study recent (Quaternary, Holocene) large climate changes since there are seldom discernible in the geomorphological record.[7] Limitations[edit] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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 Earth
history[edit] 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 Cambrian Explosion) 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

History of the atmosphere[edit]


view • discuss • edit

-4500 — – -4000 — – -3500 — – -3000 — – -2500 — – -2000 — – -1500 — – -1000 — – -500 — – 0 —


Single-celled life



Multicellular life

Land life





Earliest Earth

Earliest water

Earliest life

LHB meteorites

Earliest oxygen

Atmospheric oxygen

Oxygen crisis

Earliest sexual reproduction

Ediacara biota

Cambrian explosion

Earliest humans

P h a n e r o z o i c

P r o t e r o z o i c

A r c h e a n

H a d e a n







Axis scale: million years Orange labels: ice ages. Also see: Human
timeline and Nature timeline

See also: Atmosphere
of Earth
and History of Earth Earliest atmosphere[edit] 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.[10] Second atmosphere[edit] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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. Third atmosphere[edit] 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.[13] The following time span was the Phanerozoic eon, during which oxygen-breathing metazoan life forms began to appear. The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere has fluctuated over the last 600 million years, reaching a peak of 35%[14] 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.[15] Climate
during geological ages[edit]

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. The Cryogenian glaciation lasted from 720-635 million years ago. The Andean-Saharan glaciation lasted from 450–420 million years ago. The Karoo glaciation
Karoo glaciation
lasted from 360–260 million years ago. The Quaternary
glaciation is the current glaciation period and began 2.58 million years ago.

climate[edit] 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 close, the 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. Phanerozoic

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.[16] Royer et al. 2004[17] 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[citation needed]. 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 Jurassic
and Cretaceous
goes along with an increase of subduction and mid-ocean ridge volcanism [18] due to the breakup of the Pangea
supercontinent. 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.[19] 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. Quaternary

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,[20] red curve is atmospheric CO2 concentrations,[21] and brown curve is dust fluxes.[22][23] Note length of glacial-interglacial cycles averages ~100,000 years.

Main article: Quaternary See also: List of large-scale temperature reconstructions of the last 2,000 years The 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 before the Quaternary
in the late Neogene
Period). 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 step.

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 average. Climate

Radiative forcings, IPCC (2007)

Main article: Climate change
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.[24] 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
Climate change
may be due to internal processes in Earth
sphere's and/or following external forcings.[25] Internal processes and forcings[edit] The Earth's climate system involves the study of the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere,[26] and the sum of these processes from Earth
sphere's is considered the processes affecting the climate. Greenhouse gases
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. Examples:

Thermohaline circulation
Thermohaline circulation
(Hydrosphere) Life

External forcings[edit]

The Milankovitch cycles
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.[27] Human
changes of the composition of the atmosphere or land use.[27]

Mechanisms[edit] 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.[28][29][30] 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
James Hansen
suggested that humans emit CO2 10,000 times faster than natural processes have done in the past.[31] Ice sheet
Ice sheet
dynamics and continental positions (and linked vegetation changes) have been important factors in the long term evolution of the earth's climate.[32] There is also a close correlation between CO2 and temperature, where CO2 has a strong control over global temperatures in Earth
history.[33] See also[edit]

Paleoceanography 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

References[edit] Notes[edit]

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Bradley, Raymond S. (1985). Quaternary
paleoclimatology: methods of paleoclimatic reconstruction. Boston: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04-551067-9.  Cronin, Thomas N. (2010). Paleoclimates: understanding climate change past and present. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-14494-0.  Imbrie, John (1979). Ice ages: solving the mystery. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-44075-7.  Margulis, Lynn; Sagan, Dorion (1986). Origins of sex: three billion years of genetic recombination. The Bio-origins series. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03340-0.  Gould, Stephen Jay (1989). Wonderful life, the story of the Burgess Shale. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-02705-8.  Crowley, Thomas J.; North, Gerald R. (1996). Paleoclimatology. Oxford monographs on geology and geophysics. 18. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-510533-8.  The Climates of the Geological Past. (Die Klimate der geologischen Vorzeit). 1924, Wladimir Köppen, Alfred Wegener

Facsimile of German original and English translation: The climates of the geological past – Klimate der geologischen Vorzeit. Borntraeger, Berlin / Stuttgart 2015, ISBN 978-3-443-01088-1.

Karl-Heinz Ludwig (2006). Eine kurze Geschichte des Klimas. Von der Entstehung der Erde bis heute, (A short history of climate, From the evolution of earth till today) Herbst, ISBN 3-406-54746-X William F. Ruddimann (2001). Earth's Climate
— Past and Future. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-7167-3741-8.  B. Windley (1984). The Evolving Continents. New York: Wiley Press.  Drummond, Carl N. & Wilkinson, Bruce H. (2006). "Interannual Variability in Climate
Data". Journal of Geology. 114 (3): 325–339. Bibcode:2006JG....114..325D. doi:10.1086/500992. 

External links[edit]

The Wikibook Historical Geology
has a page on the topic of: Paleoclimatology: introduction

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Paleoclimatology.

NOAA Paleoclimatology Short history of climate

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Structural geology Geodynamics Plate tectonics Geomorphology


Glaciology Hydrogeology Marine geology


Geodesy Geomagnetism Geophysical survey Seismology Tectonophysics


Economic geology Engineering geology Planetary geology

Geology Earth
sciences Geology

v t e

Global warming
Global warming
and climate change


Brightness temperature Effective temperature Geologic record Hiatus Historical climatology Instrumental record Paleoclimatology Paleotempestology Proxy data Record of the past 1,000 years Satellite measurements



Attribution of recent climate change Aviation Biofuel Black carbon Carbon dioxide Deforestation Earth's energy budget Earth's radiation balance Ecocide Fossil fuel Global dimming Global warming
Global warming
potential Greenhouse effect (Infrared window) Greenhouse gases (Halocarbons) Land use, land-use change and forestry Radiative forcing Tropospheric ozone Urban heat island


Albedo Bond events Climate
oscillations Climate
sensitivity Cloud forcing Cosmic rays Feedbacks Glaciation Global cooling Milankovitch cycles Ocean variability


Orbital forcing Solar variation Volcanism


Global climate model


History of climate change science Atmospheric thermodynamics Svante Arrhenius James Hansen Charles David Keeling

Opinion and climate change

Environmental ethics Media coverage of climate change Public opinion on climate change (Popular culture) Scientific opinion on climate change Scientists opposing the mainstream assessment Climate change
Climate change
denial Global warming
Global warming
conspiracy theory By country & region (Africa Arctic Argentina Australia Bangladesh Belgium Canada China Europe European Union Finland Grenada Japan Luxembourg New Zealand Norway Russia Scotland South Korea Sweden Tuvalu United Kingdom United States)


Clean Power Plan Climate change
Climate change
denial (Manufactured controversy) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) March for Science People's Climate
March United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC / FCCC) Global climate regime

Potential effects and issues


Abrupt climate change Anoxic event Arctic dipole anomaly Arctic haze Arctic methane release Climate change
Climate change
and agriculture Climate change
Climate change
and ecosystems Climate change
Climate change
and gender Climate change
Climate change
and poverty Current sea level rise Drought Economics of global warming Effect on plant biodiversity Effects on health Effects on humans Effects on marine mammals Environmental migrant Extinction risk from global warming Fisheries and climate change Forest dieback Industry and society Iris hypothesis Megadrought Ocean acidification Ozone depletion Physical impacts Polar stratospheric cloud Regime shift Retreat of glaciers since 1850 Runaway climate change Season creep Shutdown of thermohaline circulation

By country

Australia South Asia

India Nepal

United States


Kyoto Protocol

Clean Development Mechanism Joint Implementation Bali Road Map 2009 United Nations Climate
Change Conference


European Climate
Change Programme G8 Climate
Change Roundtable United Kingdom Climate
Change Programme Paris Agreement

United States withdrawal

Regional climate change initiatives in the United States List of climate change initiatives

Emissions reduction

Carbon credit Carbon-neutral fuel Carbon offset Carbon tax Emissions trading Fossil-fuel phase-out

Carbon-free energy

Carbon capture and storage Efficient energy use Low-carbon economy Nuclear power Renewable energy


Individual action on climate change Simple living


Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
removal Carbon sink Climate change
Climate change
mitigation scenarios Climate
engineering Individual and political action on climate change Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation Reforestation Urban reforestation Climate
Action Plan Climate

Proposed adaptations


Damming glacial lakes Desalination Drought
tolerance Irrigation
investment Rainwater storage Sustainable development Weather modification


Avoiding dangerous climate change Land allocation decision support system

Glossary of climate change Index of climate change articles Category: Climate
change Category:Global warming Portal:Global warming

portal Paleontology

Authority control

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