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Journal Article

Toward Generalized Milankovitch Theory (GMT)


Ganopolski,  Andrey
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

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Ganopolski, A. (2024): Toward Generalized Milankovitch Theory (GMT). - Climate of the Past, 20, 1, 151-185.

Cite as: https://publications.pik-potsdam.de/pubman/item/item_29009
In recent decades, numerous paleoclimate records and results of model simulations provided strong support to the astronomical theory of Quaternary glacial cycles formulated in its modern form by Milutin Milankovitch. At the same time, new findings revealed that the classical Milankovitch theory is unable to explain a number of important facts, such as the change of the dominant periodicity of glacial cycles from 41 kyr to 100 kyr about one million years ago. This transition was also accompanied by an increase in the amplitude and asymmetry of the glacial cycles. Here, based on the results of a hierarchy of models and data analysis, a framework of the extended (generalized) version of the Milankovitch theory is presented. To illustrate the main elements of this theory, a simple conceptual model of glacial cycles was developed using the results of an Earth system model CLIMBER-2. This conceptual model explicitly assumes the multistability of the climate-cryosphere system and the instability of the “supercritical” ice sheets. Using this model, it is shown that Quaternary glacial cycles can be successfully reproduced as the strongly-nonlinear response of the Earth system to the orbital forcing, where 100 kyr cyclicity originates from the phase-locking of the precession and obliquity-forced glacial cycles to the corresponding eccentricity cycle. The eccentricity influences glacial cycles solely through its amplitude modulation of the precession component of orbital forcing, while the long time scale of the late Quaternary glacial cycles is determined by the time required for ice sheets to reach their critical size. The postulates used to construct this conceptual model were justified using analysis of relevant physical and biogeochemical processes and feedbacks. In particular, the role of climate-ice sheet-carbon cycle feedback in shaping and globalization of glacial cycles is discussed. The reasons for the instability of the large northern ice sheets and the mechanisms of the Earth system escape from the “glacial trap” via a set of strongly nonlinear processes are presented. It is also shown that the transition from the 41 kyr to the 100 kyr world about one million years ago can be explained by a gradual increase in the critical size of ice sheets, which in turn is related to the gradual removal of terrestrial sediments from the northern continents. The implications of this nonlinear paradigm for understanding Quaternary climate dynamics and the remaining knowledge gaps are finally discussed.