Climate Evolution through the onset and intensification of Northern Hemisphere Glaciation

McClymont, E. L.; Ho, S. L.; Ford, H. L.; Bailey, I.; Berke, M. A.; Bolton, C.T.; De Schepper, S.; Grant, G.R.; Groeneveld, J.; Inglis, G.N.; Karas, C.; Patterson, M.O.; Swann, G.E.A.; Thirumalai, K.; White, S.M.; Alonso‐Garcia, M.; Anand, P.; Hoogakker, B. A. A.; Littler, K.; Petrick, B. F.; Risebrobakken, B.; Abell, J.T.; Crocker, A.J.; de Graaf, F.; Feakins, S.J.; Hargreaves, J.C.; Jones, C.L.; Markowska, M.; Ratnayake, A.S.; Stepanek, C. and Tangunan, D. (2023). Climate Evolution through the onset and intensification of Northern Hemisphere Glaciation. Reviews of Geophysics, 61(3), article no. e2022RG000793.



The Pliocene Epoch (∼5.3-2.6 million years ago, Ma) was characterized by a warmer than present climate with smaller Northern Hemisphere ice sheets, and offers an example of a climate system in long-term equilibrium with current or predicted near-future atmospheric CO2 concentrations (pCO2). A long-term trend of ice-sheet expansion led to more pronounced glacial (cold) stages by the end of the Pliocene (∼2.6 Ma), known as the “intensification of Northern Hemisphere Glaciation” (iNHG). We assessed the spatial and temporal variability of ocean temperatures and ice-volume indicators through the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene (from 3.3 to 2.4 Ma) to determine the character of this climate transition. We identified asynchronous shifts in long-term means and the pacing and amplitude of shorter-term climate variability, between regions and between climate proxies. Early changes in Antarctic glaciation and Southern Hemisphere ocean properties occurred even during the mid-Piacenzian warm period (∼3.264-3.025 Ma) which has been used as an analogue for future warming. Increased climate variability subsequently developed alongside signatures of larger Northern Hemisphere ice sheets (iNHG). Yet, some regions of the ocean felt no impact of iNHG, particularly in lower latitudes. Our analysis has demonstrated the complex, non-uniform and globally asynchronous nature of climate changes associated with the iNHG. Shifting ocean gateways and ocean circulation changes may have pre-conditioned the later evolution of ice sheets with falling atmospheric pCO2. Further development of high-resolution, multi-proxy reconstructions of climate is required so that the full potential of the rich and detailed geological records can be realized.

Plain Language Summary

Warm climates of the geological past provide windows into future environmental responses to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and past climate transitions identify important or sensitive regions and processes. We assessed the patterns of average ocean temperatures and indicators of ice sheet size over hundreds of thousands of years, and compared to shorter-term variability (tens of thousands of years) during a recent transition from late Pliocene warmth (when CO2 was similar to present) to the onset of the large and repeated advances of northern hemisphere ice sheets referred to as the “ice ages.” We show that different regions of the climate system changed at different times, with some changing before the ice sheets expanded. The development of larger ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere then impacted ocean temperatures and circulation, but there were many regions where no impacts were felt. Our analysis highlights regional differences in the timing and amplitudes of change within a globally-significant climate transition as well as in response to the current atmospheric CO2 concentrations in our climate system.

Viewing alternatives

Download history


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions

Item Actions