There have been instances in Earth history when average temperatures have changed rapidly, as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) over a few decades, and some have speculated the same could happen again as the atmosphere becomes overloaded with carbon dioxide.
New research lends support to evidence from numerous recent studies that suggest abrupt climate change appears to be the result of alterations in ocean circulation uniquely associated with ice ages.
“There might be other mechanisms by which greenhouse gases may cause an abrupt climate change, but we know of no such mechanism from the geological record,” said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor.
Battisti was part of a team that used a numerical climate model coupled with an oxygen-isotope model to determine what caused climate shifts in a computer-generated episode that mimicked Heinrich events during the last ice age, from 110,000 to 10,000 years ago. Heinrich events produced huge numbers of North Atlantic Ocean icebergs that had broken off from glaciers.
The simulations showed the sudden increase in North Atlantic sea ice cooled the Northern Hemisphere, including the surface of the Indian Ocean, which reduced rainfall over India and weakened the Indian monsoon.
Battisti noted that while carbon dioxide-induced climate change is unlikely to be abrupt, the impacts of changing climate could be.