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Understanding the Mid-Holocene Climate

Sang-Ik ShinNOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, and CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, Colorado

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Prashant D. SardeshmukhNOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, and CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, Colorado

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Robert S. WebbNOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, and CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, Colorado

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Robert J. OglesbyNASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

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Joseph J. BarsugliNOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, and CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, Colorado

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Abstract

Paleoclimatic evidence suggests that during the mid-Holocene epoch (about 6000 yr ago) North America and North Africa were significantly drier and wetter, respectively, than at present. Modeling efforts to attribute these differences to changes in orbital parameters and greenhouse gas (GHG) levels have had limited success, especially over North America. In this study, the importance of a possibly cooler tropical Pacific Ocean during the epoch (akin to a permanent La Niña–like perturbation to the present climate) in causing these differences is emphasized. Systematic sets of atmospheric general circulation model experiments, with prescribed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the tropical Pacific basin and an interactive mixed layer ocean elsewhere, are performed. Given the inadequacies of current fully coupled climate models in simulating the tropical Pacific climate, this intermediate coupling model configuration is argued to be more suitable for quantifying the contributions of the altered orbital forcing, GHG levels, and tropical Pacific SST conditions to the different mid-Holocene climates. The simulated responses in this configuration are in fact generally more consistent with the available evidence from paleovegetation and sedimentary records.

Coupling to the mixed layer ocean enhances the wind–evaporation–SST feedback over the tropical Atlantic Ocean. The net response to the orbital changes is to shift the North Atlantic intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) northward, and make North Africa wetter. The response to the reduced GHG levels opposes, but does not eliminate, these changes. The northward-shifted ITCZ also blocks the moisture supply from the Gulf of Mexico into North America. This drying tendency is greatly amplified by the local response to La Niña–like conditions in the tropical Pacific. Consistent with the paleoclimatic evidence, the simulated North American drying is also most pronounced in the growing (spring) season.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Sang-Ik Shin, NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, and CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, 325 Broadway, R/PSD1, Boulder, CO 80305–3328. Email: sangik.shin@noaa.gov

Abstract

Paleoclimatic evidence suggests that during the mid-Holocene epoch (about 6000 yr ago) North America and North Africa were significantly drier and wetter, respectively, than at present. Modeling efforts to attribute these differences to changes in orbital parameters and greenhouse gas (GHG) levels have had limited success, especially over North America. In this study, the importance of a possibly cooler tropical Pacific Ocean during the epoch (akin to a permanent La Niña–like perturbation to the present climate) in causing these differences is emphasized. Systematic sets of atmospheric general circulation model experiments, with prescribed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the tropical Pacific basin and an interactive mixed layer ocean elsewhere, are performed. Given the inadequacies of current fully coupled climate models in simulating the tropical Pacific climate, this intermediate coupling model configuration is argued to be more suitable for quantifying the contributions of the altered orbital forcing, GHG levels, and tropical Pacific SST conditions to the different mid-Holocene climates. The simulated responses in this configuration are in fact generally more consistent with the available evidence from paleovegetation and sedimentary records.

Coupling to the mixed layer ocean enhances the wind–evaporation–SST feedback over the tropical Atlantic Ocean. The net response to the orbital changes is to shift the North Atlantic intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) northward, and make North Africa wetter. The response to the reduced GHG levels opposes, but does not eliminate, these changes. The northward-shifted ITCZ also blocks the moisture supply from the Gulf of Mexico into North America. This drying tendency is greatly amplified by the local response to La Niña–like conditions in the tropical Pacific. Consistent with the paleoclimatic evidence, the simulated North American drying is also most pronounced in the growing (spring) season.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Sang-Ik Shin, NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, and CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, 325 Broadway, R/PSD1, Boulder, CO 80305–3328. Email: sangik.shin@noaa.gov

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