On the other hand, models with low climate sensitivity less than 1.3 degrees underestimate the cooling almost everywhere at the Last Glacial Maximum, the researchers say. The closest match, with a much lower degree of uncertainty than most other studies, suggests climate sensitivity is about 2.4 degrees.
However, uncertainty levels may be underestimated because the model simulations did not take into account uncertainties arising from how cloud changes reflect sunlight, Schmittner said.
Reconstructing sea and land surface temperatures from 21,000 years ago is a complex task involving the examination of ices cores, bore holes, fossils of marine and terrestrial organisms, seafloor sediments and other factors. Sediment cores, for example, contain different biological assemblages found in different temperature regimes and can be used to infer past temperatures based on analogs in modern ocean conditions.
"When we first looked at the paleoclimatic data, I was struck by the small cooling of the ocean," Schmittner said. "On average, the ocean was only about two degrees (Celsius) cooler than it is today, yet the planet was completely different huge ice sheets over North America and northern Europe, more sea ice and snow, different vegetation, lower sea levels and more dust in the air.
"It shows that even very small changes in the ocean's surface temperature can have an enormous impact elsewhere, particularly over land areas at mid- to high-latitudes," he added.
Schmittner said continued unabated fossil fuel use could lead to similar warming of the sea surface as reconstruction shows happened between the Last Glacial Maximum and today.
"Hence, drastic changes over land can be expected," he said. "However, our study implies that we still have time to prevent that from happening, if we make a c
|Contact: Andreas Schmittner|
Oregon State University