Climate varies without human influence, and this natural variation is a backdrop for the human-caused climate change occurring now. These patterns hold important lessons for understanding the magnitude and scope of current and future climate changes.
Cyclical variations in the Earth’s climate occur at multiple time scales, from years to decades, centuries, and millennia. Cycles at each scale are caused by a variety of physical mechanisms. Climate over any given period is an expression of all of these nested mechanisms and cycles operating together.
Millennial Climate Cycles
Major glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) periods are initiated by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, called Milankovitch cycles. These cycles have occurred at different intensities on multi-millennial time scales (10,000 – 100,000 year periods). The orbital changes occur slowly over time, influencing where solar radiation is received on the Earth’s surface during different seasons (NASA 2000).
By themselves, these changes in the distribution of solar radiation are not strong enough to cause large temperature changes. However they can initiate powerful feedback mechanisms that amplify the slight warming or cooling effect caused by the Milankovitch cycle. One of these feedbacks is caused through changes in global surface reflectivity (also called albedo). Even a slight increase in solar radiation at northern latitudes can increase ice melt. As a result of ice loss, less sunlight is reflected from the bright white surface of the ice, and more is absorbed by the Earth, increasing overall warming. A second feedback mechanism involves atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, such as carbon dioxide. The slight warming initiated by changes to Earth’s orbit warms oceans, which allows them to release carbon dioxide. As we’ve seen, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes more warming, creating an amplifying effect (Hansen 2003). Distinct feedbacks in atmospheric CO2 concentrations may lag warming or cooling caused by orbital changes by as much as 1000 years.
In this way, what begins as fairly minor changes in orbit can produce the glacial and interglacial cycles of the last 800,000 years. A major concern with current climate change is that similar feedback mechanisms will cause a ‘runaway’ warming effect in modern times that will be extremely difficult to halt or reverse.
Century-scale Climate Cycles
In addition to multi-millennial glacial and interglacial cycles, there are shorter cold-warm cycles that occur on approximately 200 to 1,500 year time scales. The mechanisms that cause these cycles are not completely understood, but are thought to be driven by changes in the sun, along with several corresponding changes such as ocean circulation patterns (Bond et al. 2001, Wanner et al. 2008). The Medieval Warm Period (900-1300 AD) and the Little Ice Age (1450 to 1900 AD) are examples of warm and cold phases in one of these cycles. Some of these cycles, such as the Medieval Warm Period, may be regional, not necessarily reflecting large changes in global averages. Understanding and reconstructing the regional patterns of climate change during each of these periods is considered very important in accurately analyzing future regional impacts such as drought patterns (Mann et al. 2009).
Interannual to Decadal Climate Cycles
Ocean-atmosphere interactions regularly cause climate cycles on the order of years to decades. One of the most well-known cycles is the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), an interaction between ocean temperatures and atmospheric patterns (commonly known as El Niño or its opposite effect, La Niña). ENSO events occur every 3 to 7 years, and bring different weather conditions to different parts of the world (NASA 2009). For example, in the U.S., El Niño events can result in a flow of warm dry air into the Northwest, but above average rainfall in the southeast (NASA 2009).
Many other cyclical changes due to oceanic and/or atmospheric processes have been described, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) which occurs in cycles of 25-45 years (Mantua et al. 1997), and the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO), occurring on approximately 65-85 year cycles (Deser et al. 2010). Scientists are studying how each of these reoccurring cycles might interact with the enhanced greenhouse effect. There is some evidence that global warming may be intensifying ENSO events (Li et al. 2013).
Natural climate cycles can help to understand what climate patterns are expected, and how the recent increase in greenhouse gas emissions is causing deviations from these expected patterns. They can offer insight into amplifying effects that may intensify warming as greenhouse gas concentrations rise (Wolff 2011). They may also provide insight on regional impacts of climate change, which will be very important for developing adaptation strategies for human and ecological communities. However, it is important to recognize that current rates of global climate change are extremely rapid compared to past changes (IPCC 2013 Ch.5), and may produce conditions that have not been anticipated.
For more information about natural climate cycles and their implications, see a presentation by paleoecologist Connie Millar.
Need more information?
See the following primers and resources for more introductory information on climate change.
Climate Change Resource Center:
United States Global Change Research Program:
The Third National Climate Assessment
NASA Global Climate Change
Climate change: How do we know?
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:
Climate Change – The Basics
Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences:
Reading the IPCC Report - Recorded seminar series
Anderson A.; Bows, A. 2011. Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369: 20-44.
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Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC). 2014. Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations. (Accessed 10-31-2014)
Deser, C.; Alexander, M.A.; Xie, S.P.; Phillips, A.S. 2010. Sea Surface Temperature Variability: Patterns and Mechanisms. Annual Review of Marine Science. 2: 115-143.
Global Carbon Project. 2014. Carbon budget and trends 2014. (Accessed 10-20-2014)
Hansen, J.E. 2003. Can we defuse the global warming time bomb? (Accessed 10-31-2014)
Held, I.M.; Soden, B.J. 2000. Water vapor feedback and global warming. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment. 25:441-475.
Huber, M.; Knutti, R. 2011. Anthropogenic and natural warming inferred from changes in Earth's energy balance. Nature Geoscience. Advance Online Publication.
IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S.; Qin, D.; Manning, M.; Chen, Z.; Marquis, M.; Averyt, K.B.; Tignor, M.; Miller, H.L. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
IPCC, 2011: Summary for Policymakers. In: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation [Field, C. B.; Barros, V.; Stocker, T.F.; Qin, D.; Dokken, D.; Ebi, K.L.; Mastrandrea, M. D.; Mach, K. J.; Plattner, G.K.; Allen, S.; Tignor, M.; Midgley, P. M. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA.
IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
Lean, J. 2010. Cycles and trends in solar irradiance and climate. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. 1: 111-122.
Li, J.; Xie, S.-P.; Cook, E.R.; Morales, M.; Christie, D.; Johnson, N.; Chen, F.; D'Arrigo, R.; Fowler, A.; Gou, X.; Fang, K. 2013.El Niño modulations over the past seven centuries. Nature Climate Change. 3:822-826.
Mann, M.E.; Zhang, Z.; Rutherford, S.; Bradley, R.S.; Hughes, M.K.; Shindell, D.; Ammann, C.; Faluvegi, G.; Ni, F. 2009.Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly. Science. 27 (326): 1256-1260.
Mantua, N. J.; Hare, S. R.; Zhang, Y.; Wallace, J. M.; Francis, R.C. 1997. A Pacific interdecadal climate oscillation with impacts on salmon production. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 78:1069-1079.
NASA Global Climate Change. 2014. Vital Signs of the Planet. (Accessed 10-31-2014).
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. 2014. NASA Finds 2013 Sustained Long-Term Climate Warming Trend. Research News. (Accessed 10-31-2014).
NASA Earth Observatory. 2000. Features: Milutin Milankovitch. (Accessed 10-31-2014).
NASA Earth Observatory. 2009. Features: El Nino, La Nina, and Rainfall. (Accessed 10-31-2014).
NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory. 2014. Mauna Loa Observatory. (Accessed 10-31-2014)
NOAA National Climatic Data Center. 2014. (Accessed 10-31-2014).
Ramanathan, V.; Feng, Y. 2009. Air pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change: Global and regional perspectives. Atmospheric Environment. 43: 37-50.
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United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). 2009. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Karl, T.R.; Melillo, J.M.; Peterson, T.C. (eds). Cambridge University Press.
U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2014. The Third National Climate Assessment. Melillo, J.M.; Richmond, T.C.; Yohe, G.W. (eds.). 841 p.
Wanner, H.; Beer, J.; Butikofer, J.; Crowley, T.J.; Cubasch, U.; Fluckiger, J.; Goosse, H.; Grosjean, M.; Joos, F.; Kaplan, J.O.; Kuttel,M.; Muller, S.A.; Prentice, C.; Solomina, O.; Stocker, T.F.; Tarasov, P.; Wagner,M.; Widmann, M. 2008. Mid- to Late Holocene climate change: an overview. Quaternary Science Reviews. 27: 1791-1828.
Wolff, E.W. 2011. Greenhouse gases in the Earth system: a palaeoclimate perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369: 2133-2147.