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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: June 2012

6 - Post-glacial climatic change and variability

Summary

Introduction

An understanding of past climates, climate change, and variability within the Earth's climate system is essential to help understand current climate variability and to assist in the prediction of future climate change. Research over the past 50 years or so has demonstrated that changes in climate can be described for periods up to 420,000 years before present (BP). The very last few thousand years of record, the period since the end of the last major glaciation, the Holocene, is described by Petit et al. (1999) as “… the longest stable warm period recorded in Antarctica during the past 420 ky.”

Jones and Mann (2004) emphasize that the last 12,000 years BP is a short enough period so that long-term effects on climate, such as changes in the Earth's orbit and major changes in global ice mass, have no impact. Natural forces over smaller temporal scales, such as variations in solar radiation output, dust and gases from irregular volcanic eruptions, ENSO variations (Section 2.8) and changes in ocean–atmospheric circulation, become major forcing factors. After about AD 1850, human influences become much more important, associated with excess greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, land use changes, and cooling from sulfate aerosol pollution.

Thompson et al. (1993) list several reasons why the study of climate during the Holocene, and especially over the past 1000 years, can provide an important contribution to understanding of climate variability. There is enough detailed information available from a range of sources to allow climate reconstructions.

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