Past climates inform our future

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Science  06 Nov 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6517, eaay3701
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay3701

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The future in the past

A major cause of uncertainties in climate projections is our imprecise knowledge of how much warming should occur as a result of a given increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Paleoclimate records have the potential to help us sharpen that understanding because they record such a wide variety of environmental conditions. Tierney et al. review the recent advances in data collection, statistics, and modeling that might help us better understand how rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will affect future climate.

Science, this issue p. eaay3701

Structured Abstract


Anthropogenic emissions are rapidly altering Earth’s climate, pushing it toward a warmer state for which there is no historical precedent. Although no perfect analog exists for such a disruption, Earth’s history includes past climate states—“paleoclimates”—that hold lessons for the future of our warming world. These periods in Earth’s past span a tremendous range of temperatures, precipitation patterns, cryospheric extent, and biospheric adaptations and are increasingly relevant for improving our understanding of how key elements of the climate system are affected by greenhouse gas levels. The rise of new geochemical and statistical methods, as well as improvements in paleoclimate modeling, allow for formal evaluation of climate models based on paleoclimate data. In particular, given that some of the newest generation of climate models have a high sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric CO2, there is a renewed role for paleoclimates in constraining equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) and its dependence on climate background state.


In the past decade, an increasing number of studies have used paleoclimate temperature and CO2 estimates to infer ECS in the deep past, in both warm and cold climate states. Recent studies support the paradigm that ECS is strongly state-dependent, rising with increased CO2 concentrations. Simulations of past warm climates such as the Eocene further highlight the role that cloud feedbacks play in contributing to high ECS under increased CO2 levels. Paleoclimates have provided critical constraints on the assessment of future ice sheet stability and concomitant sea level rise, including the viability of threshold processes like marine ice cliff instability. Beyond global-scale changes, analyses of past changes in the water cycle have advanced our understanding of dynamical drivers of hydroclimate, which is highly relevant for regional climate projections and societal impacts. New and expanding techniques, such as analyses of single shells of foraminifera, are yielding subseasonal climate information that can be used to study how intra- and interannual modes of variability are affected by external climate forcing. Studies of extraordinary, transient departures in paleoclimate from the background state such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum provide critical context for the current anthropogenic aberration, its impact on the Earth system, and the time scale of recovery.

A number of advances have eroded the “language barrier” between climate model and proxy data, facilitating more direct use of paleoclimate information to constrain model performance. It is increasingly common to incorporate geochemical tracers, such as water isotopes, directly into model simulations, and this practice has vastly improved model-proxy comparisons. The development of new statistical approaches rooted in Bayesian inference has led to a more thorough quantification of paleoclimate data uncertainties. In addition, techniques like data assimilation allow for a formal combination of proxy and model data into hybrid products. Such syntheses provide a full-field view of past climates and can put constraints on climate variables that we have no direct proxies for, such as cloud cover or wind speed.


A common concern with using paleoclimate information as model targets is that non-CO2 forcings, such as aerosols and trace greenhouse gases, are not well known, especially in the distant past. Although evidence thus far suggests that such forcings are secondary to CO2, future improvements in both geochemical proxies and modeling are on track to tackle this issue. New and rapidly evolving geochemical techniques have the potential to provide improved constraints on the terrestrial biosphere, aerosols, and trace gases; likewise, biogeochemical cycles can now be incorporated into paleoclimate model simulations. Beyond constraining forcings, it is critical that proxy information is transformed into quantitative estimates that account for uncertainties in the proxy system. Statistical tools have already been developed to achieve this, which should make it easier to create robust targets for model evaluation. With this increase in quantification of paleoclimate information, we suggest that modeling centers include simulation of past climates in their evaluation and statement of their model performance. This practice is likely to narrow uncertainties surrounding climate sensitivity, ice sheets, and the water cycle and thus improve future climate projections.

Past climates provide context for future climate scenarios.

Both past (top) and future (bottom) climates are colored by their estimated change in global mean annual surface temperature relative to preindustrial conditions, ranging from blue (colder) to red (warmer). “Sustainability,” “Middle road,” and “High emissions” represent the estimated global temperature anomalies at year 2300 from the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) SSP1-2.6, SSP2-4.5, and SSP5-8.5, respectively. In both the past and future cases, warmer climates are associated with increases in CO2 (indicated by the arrow). Ma, millions of years ago.


As the world warms, there is a profound need to improve projections of climate change. Although the latest Earth system models offer an unprecedented number of features, fundamental uncertainties continue to cloud our view of the future. Past climates provide the only opportunity to observe how the Earth system responds to high carbon dioxide, underlining a fundamental role for paleoclimatology in constraining future climate change. Here, we review the relevancy of paleoclimate information for climate prediction and discuss the prospects for emerging methodologies to further insights gained from past climates. Advances in proxy methods and interpretations pave the way for the use of past climates for model evaluation—a practice that we argue should be widely adopted.

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