CORVALLIS, Ore. - Many scientists have long suspected that rising levels of carbon dioxide and the global warming that ended the last Ice Age were somehow linked, but establishing a clear cause-and-effect relationship between CO2 and global warming from the geologic record has remained difficult.
A new study, funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal Nature, identifies this relationship and provides compelling evidence that rising CO2 caused much of the global warming.
Lead author Jeremy Shakun, who conducted much of the research as a doctoral student at Oregon State University, said the key to understanding the role of CO2 is to reconstruct globally averaged temperature changes during the end of the last Ice Age, which contrasts with previous efforts that only compared local temperatures in Antarctica to carbon dioxide levels.
"Carbon dioxide has been suspected as an important factor in ending the last Ice Age, but its exact role has always been unclear because rising temperatures reflected in Antarctic ice cores came before rising levels of CO2," said Shakun, who is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Post-doctoral Fellow at Harvard University and Columbia University.
"But if you reconstruct temperatures on a global scale - and not just examine Antarctic temperatures - it becomes apparent that the CO2 change slightly preceded much of the global warming, and this means the global greenhouse effect had an important role in driving up global temperatures and bringing the planet out of the last Ice Age," Shakun added.
Here is what the researchers think happened.
Small changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun affected the amount of sunlight striking the northern hemisphere, melting ice sheets that covered Canada and Europe. That fresh water flowed off of the continent into the Atlantic Ocean, where it formed a lid over the sinking end of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation - a part of a global network of currents that brings warm water up from the tropics and today keeps Europe temperate despite its high latitudes.
The ocean circulation warms the northern hemisphere at the expense of the south, the researchers say, but when the fresh water draining off the continent at the end of the last Ice Age entered the North Atlantic, it essentially put the brakes on the current and disrupted the delivery of heat to the northern latitudes.
"When the heat transport stops, it cools the north and heat builds up in the Southern Hemisphere," Shakun said. "The Antarctic would have warmed rapidly, much faster than the time it takes to get CO2 out of the deep sea, where it was likely stored.
"The warming of the Southern Ocean may have shifted the winds as well as melted sea ice, and eventually drawn the CO2 out of the deep water, and released it into the atmosphere," Shakun said. "That, in turn, would have amplified warming on a global scale."
The researchers constructed a record of global surface temperature from 80 temperature reconstructions spanning the end of the Ice Age and found that average temperature around the Earth correlated with - and generally lagged behind - rising levels of CO2.
Peter Clark, an Oregon State University scientist and co-author on the paper, said changes in solar radiation were the likely trigger for the series of effects that followed. His 2009 study, published in Science, confirmed an earlier theory that wobble in the Earth's axis, which changes the amount of sunlight captured by Earth, first caused melting of the large northern ice sheets.
"It has long been known that Earth's slow wobble is caused primarily by the gravitational influences of the larger planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, which pull and tug on the Earth in slightly different ways over periods of thousands of years," said Clark, a professor in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.
Shakun said there is "an enormous amount" of carbon sequestered in the deep ocean.
"The Southern Ocean is connected to all the deep ocean basins," he pointed out, "so the most likely mechanisms to draw it out of the ocean were certainly there."
The question now, the researchers say, is how human-generated carbon dioxide will affect the planet when there isn't an ice age.
"CO2 was a big part of bringing the world out of the last Ice Age," Shakun said, "and it took about 10,000 years to do it. Now CO2 levels are rising again, but this time an equivalent increase in CO2 has occurred in only about 200 years, and there are clear signs that the planet is already beginning to respond."
"While many of the details of future climate change remain to be figured out, our study bolsters the consensus view that rising CO2 will lead to more global warming," Shakun added.
Other authors on the study include Feng He, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Shaun Marcott, Alan Mix, and Andreas Schmittner, Oregon State University; Zhengyu Liu, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Peking University; Bette Otto-Bliesner, National Center for Atmospheric Research; and Edouard Bard, CNRS-Universite Aix-Marseille.