Deep-sea sediment cores provide spatially coherent evidence for the climatic and hydrographic conditions in the subpolar North Atlantic during the last interglaciation. Taken together with similarly high-resolution terrestrial sequences, these records indicate a regional climatic progression, beginning with the extreme and variable climate late in the penultimate glaciation, continuing through a relatively stable climatic optimum during the interglaciation, and concluding with the reestablishment of the markedly variable regime that characterized the last 100,000-yr glaciation. Relatively mild conditions in much of the subpolar region significantly outlasted the minimum in global ice volume, despite declining summer insolation and the cooling influence of incipient proximal glaciers. These effects were partially offset by enhanced thermohaline circulation that paradoxically increased heat transport into the region while simultaneously providing the likely moisture source for the growth of large northern ice sheets. The inception of the last glacial cycle thus provides an example of the influence of ocean circulation on regional climate. In contrast to the apparent orbital pace of the ongoing ice-sheet growth, the subsequent deterioration of surface conditions was abrupt and dramatic.