The influence of ice sheets on temperature during the past 38 million years inferred from a one-dimensional ice sheet-climate model

Lennert B. Stap*, Roderik S.W. Van De Wal, Bas De Boer, Richard Bintanja, Lucas J. Lourens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Since the inception of the Antarctic ice sheet at the Eocene-Oligocene transition ( ~34 Myr ago), land ice has played a crucial role in Earth's climate. Through feedbacks in the climate system, land ice variability modifies atmospheric temperature changes induced by orbital, topographical, and greenhouse gas variations. Quantification of these feedbacks on long timescales has hitherto scarcely been undertaken. In this study, we use a zonally averaged energy balance climate model bidirectionally coupled to a one-dimensional ice sheet model, capturing the ice-albedo and surface-height-temperature feedbacks. Potentially important transient changes in topographic boundary conditions by tectonics and erosion are not taken into account but are briefly discussed. The relative simplicity of the coupled model allows us to perform integrations over the past 38 Myr in a fully transient fashion using a benthic oxygen isotope record as forcing to inversely simulate CO2. Firstly, we find that the results of the simulations over the past 5 Myr are dependent on whether the model run is started at 5 or 38 Myr ago. This is because the relation between CO2 and temperature is subject to hysteresis. When the climate cools from very high CO2 levels, as in the longer transient 38 Myr run, temperatures in the lower CO2 range of the past 5 Myr are higher than when the climate is initialised at low temperatures. Consequently, the modelled CO2 concentrations depend on the initial state. Taking the realistic warm initialisation into account, we come to a best estimate of CO2, temperature, ice-volume-equivalent sea level, and benthic ^delta;18O over the past 38 Myr. Secondly, we study the influence of ice sheets on the evolution of global temperature and polar amplification by comparing runs with ice sheet-climate interaction switched on and off. By passing only albedo or surface height changes to the climate model, we can distinguish the separate effects of the ice-albedo and surface- height-temperature feedbacks. We find that ice volume variability has a strong enhancing effect on atmospheric temperature changes, particularly in the regions where the ice sheets are located. As a result, polar amplification in the Northern Hemisphere decreases towards warmer climates as there is little land ice left to melt. Conversely, decay of the Antarctic ice sheet increases polar amplification in the Southern Hemisphere in the high-CO2 regime. Our results also show that in cooler climates than the pre-industrial, the ice-albedo feedback predominates the surface-height- temperature feedback, while in warmer climates they are more equal in strength.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1243-1257
Number of pages15
JournalClimate of the Past
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 25 Sept 2017


Acknowledgements. We thank four anonymous reviewers for providing useful suggestions, which helped to improve the quality of the paper. We further thank Edward Gasson for sharing his data. Financial support for Lennert B. Stap was provided by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO), grant NWO-ALW. Bas de Boer is funded by NWO Earth and Life Sciences (ALW), project 863.15.019. This paper contributes to the gravity programme “Reading the past to project the future” funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

FundersFunder number
Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research
Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek


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