Articles | Volume 8, issue 4
Research article
09 Jul 2012
Research article |  | 09 Jul 2012

Climate bifurcation during the last deglaciation?

T. M. Lenton, V. N. Livina, V. Dakos, and M. Scheffer

Abstract. There were two abrupt warming events during the last deglaciation, at the start of the Bølling-Allerød and at the end of the Younger Dryas, but their underlying dynamics are unclear. Some abrupt climate changes may involve gradual forcing past a bifurcation point, in which a prevailing climate state loses its stability and the climate tips into an alternative state, providing an early warning signal in the form of slowing responses to perturbations, which may be accompanied by increasing variability. Alternatively, short-term stochastic variability in the climate system can trigger abrupt climate changes, without early warning. Previous work has found signals consistent with slowing down during the last deglaciation as a whole, and during the Younger Dryas, but with conflicting results in the run-up to the Bølling-Allerød. Based on this, we hypothesise that a bifurcation point was approached at the end of the Younger Dryas, in which the cold climate state, with weak Atlantic overturning circulation, lost its stability, and the climate tipped irreversibly into a warm interglacial state. To test the bifurcation hypothesis, we analysed two different climate proxies in three Greenland ice cores, from the Last Glacial Maximum to the end of the Younger Dryas. Prior to the Bølling warming, there was a robust increase in climate variability but no consistent slowing down signal, suggesting this abrupt change was probably triggered by a stochastic fluctuation. The transition to the warm Bølling-Allerød state was accompanied by a slowing down in climate dynamics and an increase in climate variability. We suggest that the Bølling warming excited an internal mode of variability in Atlantic meridional overturning circulation strength, causing multi-centennial climate fluctuations. However, the return to the Younger Dryas cold state increased climate stability. We find no consistent evidence for slowing down during the Younger Dryas, or in a longer spliced record of the cold climate state before and after the Bølling-Allerød. Therefore, the end of the Younger Dryas may also have been triggered by a stochastic perturbation.