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How the ocean affects climate on land

Nov 3, 2022
For the first time, researchers have drawn a map showing how much regional temperature has fluctuated over the past 8000 years
It is not only directly on the water, as here on Hudson Bay, that the ocean influences. A new study shows that in addition to man-made global warming, regional variations are also to be expected. Photo: Ulrike Herzschuh
It is not only directly on the water, as here on Hudson Bay, that the ocean influences. A new study shows that in addition to man-made global warming, regional variations are also to be expected. Photo: Ulrike Herzschuh

Climate on land appears to be much more variable than currently simulated in climate models. The reason for this is the oceanic influence, which shapes the fluctuations in land temperature on long time scales. This is the conclusion suggested by a new study published in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience. Scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam and MARUM – Center for Amrine Environmental Sciences at the University of Bremen used thousands of pollen records to create for the first time a map of the strength of regional temperature fluctuations over the last 8,000 years. The consequence: In addition to anthropogenic warming additional changes in regional climates are expected due to natural variability.

The study of past climate is crucial in understanding how climate changes naturally through time and thus in defining the background context against which anthropogenic global warming takes place. To study long-term temperature variability before thermometers were invented, indirect recorders of past climate variations, so called ‘climate proxies’ are used. Plants leave behind in lake sediments traces of their presence in the form of pollen grains, which once compiled provide snapshots of past ecological composition, thus tracking vegetation changes along with climate changes. 

“Thousands of pollen records have been compiled over the world and we have gathered them in a single database,” explains Prof. Ulrike Herzschuh, of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). “If you want to study long-term variability over land, pollen records are essential. They provide extensive spatial coverage of past terrestrial vegetation and climate changes like no other archives since they are found anywhere where vegetation grows, or was growing in the past.” Lead author Dr. Raphaël Hébert and his colleagues analyzed this database together with temperature measurements and measured retrospectively how much the regional temperature temporally varies over years to millennia.

The study did not only characterize the mean behavior, but also provided detailed maps of the millennial scale variability. This revealed patterns intrinsically linked to the propagation of oceanic influence inland. “When we found that the spatial patterns of millennial variability were not only spatially coherent, but also related to those from the completely independent modern temperature measurements, we suspected we found something significant for a deeper understanding of long-term variability,” explains Hébert.

The relationship the researchers identified supports a dual role of oceans in influencing temperature variability. „We know that oceanic climates are generally more stable, at least on annual to decadal timescales. What was surprising however, is that the same regions became the most variable on millennial timescales. Therefore, while oceanic influence stabilizes short term climate, it appears to be the main driver of long-term variability.“ 

The study extends on previous results on ocean temperature variations from Prof. Thomas Laepple who works at MARUM and is also heading an interdisciplinary research group funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Grant specifically on this topic at the AWI. He adds “We knew already that large regional scale variability was expected over the ocean from our previous study using corals and marine sediments, but this was never confirmed over land which was believed to be more stable. Consequently, this means we could see unpredicted shifts in local climates, and they may already be hidden in the ocean. This adds to the uncertainty of climate change for the upcoming century as this layers on top of the expected global warming.”

Original publication:

Hébert, R., Herzschuh, U. & Laepple, T. Millennial-scale climate variability over land overprinted by ocean temperature fluctuations. Nature Geoscience. (2022). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-022-01056-4



Prof. Dr. Thomas Laepple
MARUM - Center for Marine Environmental research, University of Bremen
Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research
Phone: +49 331 58174-5602
Email: Thomas.Laepple@awi.de