Ice Age - Causes of Ice Ages - Variations in Earth's Orbit (Milankovitch Cycles)

Variations in Earth's Orbit (Milankovitch Cycles)

The Milankovitch cycles are a set of cyclic variations in characteristics of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. Each cycle has a different length, so at some times their effects reinforce each other and at other times they (partially) cancel each other.

There is strong evidence that the Milankovitch cycles affect the occurrence of glacial and interglacial periods within an ice age. The present ice age is the most studied and best understood, particularly the last 400,000 years, since this is the period covered by ice cores that record atmospheric composition and proxies for temperature and ice volume. Within this period, the match of glacial/interglacial frequencies to the Milanković orbital forcing periods is so close that orbital forcing is generally accepted. The combined effects of the changing distance to the Sun, the precession of the Earth's axis, and the changing tilt of the Earth's axis redistribute the sunlight received by the Earth. Of particular importance are changes in the tilt of the Earth's axis, which affect the intensity of seasons. For example, the amount of solar influx in July at 65 degrees north latitude varies by as much as 25% (from 450 W/m² to 550 W/m²). It is widely believed that ice sheets advance when summers become too cool to melt all of the accumulated snowfall from the previous winter. Some workers believe that the strength of the orbital forcing is too small to trigger glaciations, but feedback mechanisms like CO2 may explain this mismatch.

While Milankovitch forcing predicts that cyclic changes in the Earth's orbital elements can be expressed in the glaciation record, additional explanations are necessary to explain which cycles are observed to be most important in the timing of glacial–interglacial periods. In particular, during the last 800,000 years, the dominant period of glacial–interglacial oscillation has been 100,000 years, which corresponds to changes in Earth's orbital eccentricity and orbital inclination. Yet this is by far the weakest of the three frequencies predicted by Milankovitch. During the period 3.0–0.8 million years ago, the dominant pattern of glaciation corresponded to the 41,000-year period of changes in Earth's obliquity (tilt of the axis). The reasons for dominance of one frequency versus another are poorly understood and an active area of current research, but the answer probably relates to some form of resonance in the Earth's climate system.

The "traditional" Milankovitch explanation struggles to explain the dominance of the 100,000-year cycle over the last 8 cycles. Richard A. Muller, Gordon J. F. MacDonald, and others have pointed out that those calculations are for a two-dimensional orbit of Earth but the three-dimensional orbit also has a 100,000-year cycle of orbital inclination. They proposed that these variations in orbital inclination lead to variations in insolation, as the Earth moves in and out of known dust bands in the solar system. Although this is a different mechanism to the traditional view, the "predicted" periods over the last 400,000 years are nearly the same. The Muller and MacDonald theory, in turn, has been challenged by Jose Antonio Rial.

Another worker, William Ruddiman, has suggested a model that explains the 100,000-year cycle by the modulating effect of eccentricity (weak 100,000-year cycle) on precession (26,000-year cycle) combined with greenhouse gas feedbacks in the 41,000- and 26,000-year cycles. Yet another theory has been advanced by Peter Huybers who argued that the 41,000-year cycle has always been dominant, but that the Earth has entered a mode of climate behavior where only the second or third cycle triggers an ice age. This would imply that the 100,000-year periodicity is really an illusion created by averaging together cycles lasting 80,000 and 120,000 years. This theory is consistent with a simple empirical multi-state model proposed by Didier Paillard. Paillard suggests that the late Pleistocene glacial cycles can be seen as jumps between three quasi-stable climate states. The jumps are induced by the orbital forcing, while in the early Pleistocene the 41,000-year glacial cycles resulted from jumps between only two climate states. A dynamical model explaining this behavior was proposed by Peter Ditlevsen. This is in support of the suggestion that the late Pleistocene glacial cycles are not due to the weak 100,000-year eccentricity cycle, but a non-linear response to mainly the 41,000-year obliquity cycle.

Read more about this topic:  Ice Age, Causes of Ice Ages

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