Scientists discover 'warm ice age' that altered Earth's climate cycles

Groundbreaking study unveils connection between warmth, moisture, and climate shifts


Scientists have made a groundbreaking discovery regarding Earth's climate cycles, suggesting that an extraordinary period of warmth and moisture, known as a "warm ice age," occurring approximately 700,000 years ago, along with the expansion of polar glaciers, played a pivotal role in permanently transforming the planet's climate patterns. A team of European researchers, including Earth scientists from Germany's Heidelberg University, utilised recent geological data and advanced computer simulations to unravel this seemingly paradoxical connection. 

Their findings have been published in the esteemed journal Nature Communications.

Before the last 700,000 years, the Earth's climate underwent cycles characterized by 40,000-year durations, featuring relatively shorter and milder glacial periods. However, during the Middle Pleistocene Transition period, which spanned from about 1.2 million years ago to 670,000 years ago, significant changes occurred. The team's investigation involved analyzing climate records from a drill core off the coast of Portugal and loess records from the Chinese Plateau, which were then incorporated into computer simulations.

"The mechanisms responsible for this critical change in the global climate rhythm remain largely unknown. They cannot be attributed to variations in the orbital parameters governing the Earth's climate," explained Associate Professor Andre Bahr, Heidelberg University.

"But the recently identified 'warm ice age', which caused the accumulation of excess continental ice, did play a critical role," said Bahr.

The researchers' models unveiled a remarkable long-term trend of warming and increased moisture in subtropical regions over the past 800,000 to 670,000 years. Intriguingly, during this Middle Pleistocene Transition period, sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic and tropical North Pacific were higher than those experienced during the preceding interglacial phase, which bridges the gap between glacial periods. Consequently, this temperature disparity led to elevated moisture production and rainfall in Southwest Europe, facilitating the expansion of Mediterranean forests and intensifying the summer monsoon in East Asia.

What makes this discovery even more extraordinary is that the surplus moisture didn't remain confined to subtropical regions—it also reached the polar areas, contributing to the expansion of the Northern Eurasian ice sheets. These ice sheets, located in the Northern Hemisphere, are the hallmarks of glacial periods or geological ice ages.

The scientists' research sheds light on the Middle Pleistocene Transition period's significant influence in shaping Earth's climate cycles as we know them today. The shift to 100,000-year cycles between distinct glacial and warm periods, which has persisted for the past 700,000 years, marks a pivotal turning point in our planet's climatic history. The newfound understanding of the intricate relationship between the warm ice age, increased moisture, and the expansion of polar glaciers opens up new avenues for exploring the complex dynamics of Earth's climate system.

"They persisted for some time and heralded in the phase of sustained and far-reaching ice-age glaciation that lasted until the late Pleistocene.

"Such expansion of the continental glaciers was necessary to trigger the shift from the 40,000-year cycles to the 100,000-year cycles we experience today, which was critical for the Earth's later climate evolution," said Bahr. 

This study highlights the crucial role that past climatic events can play in shaping the present and future climate scenarios. By unraveling the mechanisms behind historical shifts, scientists are better equipped to comprehend the potential ramifications of ongoing climate change. With this knowledge, researchers can strive to develop effective strategies for mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change and safeguarding the future of our planet.