Articles | Volume 2, issue 1
17 Jul 2006
17 Jul 2006

Ice-driven CO2 feedback on ice volume

W. F. Ruddiman

Abstract. The origin of the major ice-sheet variations during the last 2.7 million years is a long-standing mystery. Neither the dominant 41 000-year cycles in δ18O/ice-volume during the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene nor the late-Pleistocene oscillations near 100 000 years is a linear ("Milankovitch") response to summer insolation forcing. Both responses must result from non-linear behavior within the climate system. Greenhouse gases (primarily CO2) are a plausible source of the required non-linearity, but confusion has persisted over whether the gases force ice volume or are a positive feedback. During the last several hundred thousand years, CO2 and ice volume (marine δ18O) have varied in phase at the 41 000-year obliquity cycle and nearly in phase within the ~100 000-year band. This timing rules out greenhouse-gas forcing of a very slow ice response and instead favors ice control of a fast CO2 response.

In the schematic model proposed here, ice sheets responded linearly to insolation forcing at the precession and obliquity cycles prior to 0.9 million years ago, but CO2 feedback amplified the ice response at the 41 000-year period by a factor of approximately two. After 0.9 million years ago, with slow polar cooling, ablation weakened. CO2 feedback continued to amplify ice-sheet growth every 41 000 years, but weaker ablation permitted some ice to survive insolation maxima of low intensity. Step-wise growth of these longer-lived ice sheets continued until peaks in northern summer insolation produced abrupt deglaciations every ~85 000 to ~115 000 years. Most of the deglacial ice melting resulted from the same CO2/temperature feedback that had built the ice sheets. Several processes have the northern geographic origin, as well as the requisite orbital tempo and phasing, to be candidate mechanisms for ice-sheet control of CO2 and their own feedback.