When is the next Ice Age due?

Written by Clive Best

All of Human civilization fits neatly into the current interglacial period. The development of agriculture, settlements and societies were all enabled by a beneficial climate  for the last  10,000 years.

Interglacials usually average ~10,000 years so is our luck about to run out? It turns out that the answer is no, because we are very fortunate that human society has developed during an interglacial when the earth’s orbit  has very low eccentricity.

Eccentricity is important because it regulates the strength of polar maximum summer insolation caused by precession of the equinoxes every 21,000 years.  Precession determines the distance from the sun during a Polar summer. If summer coincides with the earth’s perihelion then summer insolation can be up to 20% higher than average. However if the earth’s orbit is nearly circular, as it is today,  then precession has little effect at all. That is why we have about 15000 years left before cooling begins.

The current interglacial period showing how eccentricity is falling to near zero values. Mainly changes in obliquity will regulate future summer melt in the Arctic.

The current interglacial period showing how eccentricity is falling to near zero values. Mainly changes in obliquity will regulate future summer melt in the Arctic (blue curve). This reaches a minimum in 15,000 years time. The arrow marks the cross-over in N-S asymmetry.

The peak of the warmer Eemian interglacial 120,000 years ago lasted less than 10,000 years, because the much larger eccentricity at that time enabled the first minimum precession summer to increase the spread of northern ice sheets.

The last Eemian interglacial was warmer than the current one but lasted much shorter

The last Eemian interglacial was warmer than the current one but ‘lasted’ only about 10,000 years

One needs to go back 420,000 years to find a similar glacial cycle to the current one at low eccentricity. This is known as the Anglian glaciation because the ice sheets spread as far south as Anglia and diverted the Thames southwards from the Wash to its current basin. The Anglian  had very similar orbital parameters to those we experience today.

Compare the Anglian and Palocene interglacials

Comparison of the  Anglian (420K years ago) with our own  interglacial. Note how both seem to have experienced similar Younger Dryas events. However, there are differences in precession evolution with North-South inverted.

This result implies that the the current interglacial would naturally last another 20000 years. However, the alignment of precession is not perfect, and the north-south precession cycle is inverted. Despite this, at very low eccentricity, it is only obliquity that really counts. We conclude that within 15000 years the earth would naturally be returning to a new ice age lasting 100,000 years.  The earth then enters another long period of high eccentricity lasting a further 400,000 years.  Future Interglacials will last only ~10,000 years, before the cycle repeats. One only needs to look at how transient interglacials were 600,000 years ago when eccentricity was high.

Note how the obliquity cycle reasetrts itself eccentricity is high. The glacial periods 600,000y ago and 300,000y ago are essentially co-joined 41k cycles.

Note how the obliquity cycle reasserts itself when eccentricity is high. The glacial periods 600,000y ago and 300,000y ago are essentially co-joined 41k cycles.

Now we look at an even more remarkable correlation. Eccentricity  has an even longer cycle with a time base lasting 2.8 million years. The following plot is the result of calculations  by Laskar and his group covering 50 million years.

LA2010 calclations of the earth's eccentricity over a 4 million year period spanning the present day.

LA2010 calculations of the earth’s eccentricity over a 4 million year period spanning the present day marked by the arrow. Notice how the long term pattern repeats a similar beat to 2.8 million years ago.

The mid-Pliocene was much warmer than today  with CO2 levels similar to those caused by man today (400ppm or above). This is about as warm as most climate models predict the earth will be by  2100  – i.e. about +2C above current temperatures.  The full 5 million year record of Benthic Fora data gives clear evidence of Milankovitch cycles throughout the period, including a 420K eccentricity cycle in earlier times. However by 3 million years ago glacial cycles had  begun to follow a regular 41K obliquity cycle. It was only much later (< 1 million years) that 100k deep glacial cycles began.

5 million years of benthic foram delta&;O16 data. The blue curve is a fit to Milankovitch harmonic data.

5 million years of benthic foram deltaO16 data. The blue curve is a fit to Milankovitch harmonic data.

So can we learn anything by looking at the data 2.8 million years ago in the super-cycle? The plot below shows the Benthic Fora data (Ice volume proxy for temperature) compared to the Milankovitch cycles

2-8mil

Comparison of the Benthic Fora ice volume data (shaded grey) with eccentricity (black), Obliquity (purple) and Polar insolation (blue-north, dashed-south). Average (red) follows obliquity. Cycle follows obliquity except for two shaded areas.

Even 2.8 million years ago it seems that the decrease in polar insolation due to decreasing obliquity needed a helping hand to enter another  glaciation period.

Even without human induced increases in CO2 the current interglacial was set to last nearly as long as the Anglian.  The minimum obliquity is due to be reached in 12,000 years time and a minimum Arctic summer in 15,000 years time. A spread in ice sheets and cooling would normally be expected to have started before then. Has global warming delayed this process and if so then by how much ?

If we assume emissions continue to the end of this century and then reduce as we develop other energy sources, then the temperature response might look something like this.

Fig 4: Long term predictions assuming non-carbon energy sources post 2100. The 4 feedback factor curves labeled F use the same calculations as described above based on the red CO2 level curve labelled A1B.

Long term predictions assuming non-carbon energy sources post 2100. The 4 feedback factor curves labeled F are based on the red CO2 level curve labelled A1B. They are equivalent to climate sensitivity.

We can argue about how warm the peak temperature will get and CMIP5 models vary about this roughly  between 2 and 5 degrees. However this manmade climate disturbance should last for not much more than  3000 years so long as our emissions are reduced before 2100. The real question is what level we should then try to keep CO2 to avoid another devastating glaciation in 15,000 years time? If we want to survive long term then probably we should never let CO2 fall below 300ppm ever again!

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