Using results from coupled climate model simulations of the 8.2 ka climate event that produced a cold period over Greenland in agreement with the reconstructed cooling from ice cores, we investigate the typical pattern of climate anomalies (fingerprint) to provide a framework for the interpretation of global proxy data for the 8.2 ka climate event. For this purpose we developed an analysis method that isolates the forced temperature response and provides information on spatial variations in magnitude, timing and duration that characterise the detectable climate event in proxy archives. Our analysis shows that delays in the temperature response to the freshwater forcing are present, mostly in the order of decades (30 a over central Greenland). The North Atlantic Ocean initially cools in response to the freshwater perturbation, followed in certain parts by a warm response. This delay, occurring more than 200 a after the freshwater pulse, hints at an overshoot in the recovery from the freshwater perturbation. The South Atlantic and the Southern Ocean show a warm response reflecting the bipolar seesaw effect. The duration of the simulated event varies for different areas, and the highest probability of recording the event in proxy archives is in the North Atlantic Ocean area north of 40° N. Our results may facilitate the interpretation of proxy archives recording the 8.2 ka event, as they show that timing and duration cannot be assumed to correspond with the timing and duration of the event as recorded in Greenland ice cores. © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.