Climate Models Challenged as Scientists Identify Ancient Pool of Warm Water

Apr 12, 2013 by

A giant mass of warm water that stretched out from Indonesia over to Africa and South America about 4 million years ago suggests current climate models might be too conservative in forecasting tropical changes.

This image shows global surface air temperature anomalies four million years ago (A. V. Fedorov et al)

This image shows global surface air temperature anomalies four million years ago (A. V. Fedorov et al)

Present in the Pliocene era, the large pool of warm water would have dramatically altered rainfall in the tropics, possibly even removing the monsoon. Its decay and the consequential drying of East Africa may have been a factor in Hominid evolution.

The data for this phenomenon, published in the journal Nature, could have significant implications when predicting the future climate.

When analyzing all the available sea surface temperature records spanning the past 5 million years, a team of scientists led by Prof Christina Ravelo of the University of California Santa Cruz found that none of the currently proposed mechanisms can account for such conditions in the Pliocene, when tested using a climate model.

“Essentially, we’ve looked at a warm world in the past and it shows changes in the pattern of tropical sea surface temperatures. We’ve analyzed all the existing theories to explain this vast pool of ancient warm water, and even in combination they can’t explain something as odd as this,” said co-author Dr Chris Brierley of University College London.

Occurring between three and five million years ago, the Pliocene was the last time the world was in a steady climate that was warmer, and with a carbon dioxide level higher than the conditions that existed before the Industrial Revolution. As a result, it has attracted strong attention as a possible basis for future climate conditions once carbon dioxide levels have been stabilized.

The three critical conditions that defined the tropical Pliocene climate were: evidence of the maximum ocean temperature not being much warmer; reduced east-west temperate differences; and weaker north-south differences in the tropics.

“An important question is how much the evidence of climate evolution over the last five million years shapes our assessment of future change. From these observations, it is clear that the climate system is capable of remarkable transformations even with small changes in external parameters such as carbon dioxide,” Dr Brierley said.

“Therefore, explaining the discrepancy between model simulations and the early Pliocene temperature patterns is essential for building confidence in our climate projections.”

“In many ways, this work on past climates is part of understanding the uncertainty of future climate. It can give us a heads-up of potential climates that we hadn’t imagined possible before.”


Bibliographic information: A. V. Fedorov et al. 2013. Patterns and mechanisms of early Pliocene warmth. Nature 496, 43–49; doi: 10.1038/nature12003