Using multi-millenium simulations performed with the three-dimensional climate model ECBILTCLIO, we analyze how variations in the external forcing can excite low-frequency modes of climate variability. We find that prescribing an idealized, abrupt decrease in solar irradiance can trigger a large perturbation of the oceanic thermohaline circulation (THC) associated with a cooling of more than 5 °C in the North Atlantic over decades to centuries. Using more realistic scenarios that include the variations of solar irradiance and the influence of volcanic eruptions, such large perturbations of the THC are not triggered. Nevertheless, modifications of the forcing can strongly modify the probability of very cold years in the North Atlantic. During those cold years, sea-ice covers a large part of the Nordic Seas and the inflow of warm Atlantic waters at high latitudes is strongly reduced. Those processes induce a temporarily, strong local amplification of the forcing and generate modifications of the atmospheric conditions. Simulations of the last millenium climate using realistic forcing reveal that the probability to have such very cold years in the model is higher during the period AD 1300-1850 than during the first centuries of the second millenium or during the twentieth century. This might explain the higher variability observed during this period in some climate records in the Nordic Seas. © Springer-Verlag 2004.