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Orbital Theory of Ice Ages

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1 Orbital Theory of Ice Ages
Milankovitch, 1937 Orbital Theory of Ice Ages 3 dominant pacemakers of climate change Eccentricity: 100,000 year cycle Obliquity: 41,000 year cycle Precession: 23,000 year cycle


3 Eccentricity – 100,000 & 400,000 yrs

4 Obliquity – 41,000 yrs

5 Precession – 23,000 yrs


7 Earth wobbles in space so that its tilt changes between about 22 and 25 degrees on a cycle of about 41,000 years.

8 Changes in tilt change the severity of the seasons - more tilt means more severe seasons - warmer summers and colder winters; less tilt means less severe seasons - cooler summers and milder winters.

9 It is the cool summers which are thought to allow snow and ice to last from year to year in high latitudes, eventually building up into massive ice sheets (moderate winters – warm).

10 There are positive feedbacks in the climate system as well, because an Earth covered with more snow reflects more of Sun's energy into space, causing additional cooling. In addition, it appears that the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere falls as ice sheets grow, also adding to the cooling of the climate.

11 e = (a2 - b2)1/2  / a


13 Aphelion – when Earth is furthest from Sun. ~21,000 yr.



16 These three “orbital parameters” operate simultaneously, influencing the distribution of solar radiation on Earth (Insolation)

17 Milankovitch cycles are “Pacemakers of the Ice Ages”

18 The combination of the 41,000 year tilt cycle and the 22,000 year precession cycles, plus the smaller eccentricity signal, affect the relative severity of summer and winter, and are thought to control the growth and retreat of ice sheets. Cool summers in the northern hemisphere, where most of Earth's land mass is located, appear to allow snow and ice to persist to the next winter, allowing the development of large ice sheets over hundreds to thousands of years. Conversely, warmer summers shrink ice sheets by melting more ice than the amount accumulating during the winter.

19 Orbital changes occur over thousands of years, and the climate system may also take thousands of years to respond to orbital forcing. Theory suggests that the primary driver of ice ages is the total summer radiation received in northern latitude zones where major ice sheets have formed in the past, near 65 degrees north. Past ice ages correlate well to 65N summer insolation. Astronomical calculations show that 65N summer insolation should increase gradually over the next 25,000 years, and that no 65N summer insolation declines sufficient to cause an ice age are expected in the next 50, ,000 years





24 Obliquity (41 ka cycle) dominates most of Earth history
but Eccentricity (100 ka cycle) dominates the last 700 ka with higher amplitude changes and the “sawtooth”

25 41 ka cycles (obliquity) dominate the
Pliocene and early Pleistocene 100 ka 41 ka 100 ka cycles (eccentricity) dominate the late Pleistocene

26 Orbital parameters have been operating throughout Earth history
But the energy changes between “glacial” and “interglacial” are actually very small, so they cannot explain all climate change Why have we not always had ice ages? Global climate of the Pleistocene and Holocene appears to be more susceptible to rapid change than in most of Earth history. Thus the world today may be highly sensitive to things like atmospheric CO2 concentration

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