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Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly

Science  27 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5957, pp. 1256-1260
DOI: 10.1126/science.1177303

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Patterns of Change

The global climate record of the past 1500 years shows two long intervals of anomalous temperatures before the obvious anthropogenic warming of the 20th century: the warm Medieval Climate Anomaly between roughly 950 and 1250 A.D. and the Little Ice Age between around 1400 and 1700 A.D. It has become increasingly clear in recent years, however, that climate changes inevitably involve a complex pattern of regional changes, whose inhomogeneities contain valuable insights into the mechanisms that cause them. Mann et al. (p. 1256) analyzed proxy records of climate since 500 A.D. and compared their global patterns with model reconstructions. The results identify the large-scale processes—like El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation—that can account for the observations and suggest that dynamic responses to variable radiative forcing were their primary causes.

Abstract

Global temperatures are known to have varied over the past 1500 years, but the spatial patterns have remained poorly defined. We used a global climate proxy network to reconstruct surface temperature patterns over this interval. The Medieval period is found to display warmth that matches or exceeds that of the past decade in some regions, but which falls well below recent levels globally. This period is marked by a tendency for La Niña–like conditions in the tropical Pacific. The coldest temperatures of the Little Ice Age are observed over the interval 1400 to 1700 C.E., with greatest cooling over the extratropical Northern Hemisphere continents. The patterns of temperature change imply dynamical responses of climate to natural radiative forcing changes involving El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation–Arctic Oscillation.

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