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In this module, we will look at the recent natural changes in Earth’s climate, and we will use these drivers to understand why the climate has changed.

Learning objectives

After reading this module, students should be able to

  • describe the changing climate of the Quaternary
  • explain why Milankovitch cycles explain the variations of climate over the Quaternary, in terms of the similar periods of orbital variations and glacial cycles
  • explain how the glacier/climate system is linked via albedo feedbacks
  • describe how sediment and ice cores provide information about past climates
  • use the mechanisms that cause stable isotope fractionation to predict the impact of changing climate on stable isotope records


In Module Climate Processes; External and Internal Controls we saw the major drivers of the climate—the energy that comes from the Sun (insolation) and the properties of the planet that determine how long that energy stays in the Earth system (albedo, greenhouse gases). In this section, we will look at the recent natural changes in Earth's climate, and we will use these drivers to understand why the climate has changed.

The most recent period of Earth's geologic history—spanning the last 2.6 million years—is known as the Quaternary period . This is an important period for us because it encompasses the entire period over which humans have existed—our species evolved about 200,000 years ago. We will examine how the climate has changed over this period in detail. By understanding recent natural processes of climate change, we will be able to better understand why scientists attribute the currently observed changes in global climate as being the result of human activity.

Quaternary climate — information from ice cores

How do we know about the Quaternary climate? After all, most of the period predates human existence, and we have only been recording the conditions of climate for a few centuries. Scientists are able to make informed judgments about the climates of the deep past by using proxy data     . Proxy data is information about the climate that accumulates through natural phenomena. In the previous module, for example, we discussed how 60-million-year-old crocodile fossils have been found in North Dakota. This gives us indirect information about the climate of the period—that the climate of the region was warmer than it is today. Although not as precise as climate data recorded by instruments (such as thermometers), proxy data has been recovered from a diverse array of natural sources, and provides a surprisingly precise picture of climate change through deep time.

One highly detailed record of past climate conditions has been recovered from the great ice sheets    of Greenland and Antarctica. These ice sheets are built by snow falling on the ice surface and being covered by subsequent snowfalls. The compressed snow is transformed into ice. It is so cold in these polar locations that the ice doesn't melt even in the summers, so the ice is able to build up over hundreds of thousands of years. Because the ice at lower depths was produced by progressively earlier snowfalls, the age of the ice increases with depth, and the youngest ice is at the surface. The Antarctic ice sheet is up to three miles thick. It takes a long time to build up this much ice, and the oldest ice found at the bottom of the Antarctica ice sheet is around 800,000 years old.

Questions & Answers

what does nano mean?
Anassong Reply
nano basically means 10^(-9). nanometer is a unit to measure length.
do you think it's worthwhile in the long term to study the effects and possibilities of nanotechnology on viral treatment?
Damian Reply
absolutely yes
how to know photocatalytic properties of tio2 nanoparticles...what to do now
Akash Reply
it is a goid question and i want to know the answer as well
characteristics of micro business
for teaching engĺish at school how nano technology help us
Do somebody tell me a best nano engineering book for beginners?
s. Reply
what is fullerene does it is used to make bukky balls
Devang Reply
are you nano engineer ?
fullerene is a bucky ball aka Carbon 60 molecule. It was name by the architect Fuller. He design the geodesic dome. it resembles a soccer ball.
what is the actual application of fullerenes nowadays?
That is a great question Damian. best way to answer that question is to Google it. there are hundreds of applications for buck minister fullerenes, from medical to aerospace. you can also find plenty of research papers that will give you great detail on the potential applications of fullerenes.
what is the Synthesis, properties,and applications of carbon nano chemistry
Abhijith Reply
Mostly, they use nano carbon for electronics and for materials to be strengthened.
is Bucky paper clear?
so some one know about replacing silicon atom with phosphorous in semiconductors device?
s. Reply
Yeah, it is a pain to say the least. You basically have to heat the substarte up to around 1000 degrees celcius then pass phosphene gas over top of it, which is explosive and toxic by the way, under very low pressure.
Do you know which machine is used to that process?
how to fabricate graphene ink ?
for screen printed electrodes ?
What is lattice structure?
s. Reply
of graphene you mean?
or in general
in general
Graphene has a hexagonal structure
On having this app for quite a bit time, Haven't realised there's a chat room in it.
what is biological synthesis of nanoparticles
Sanket Reply
what's the easiest and fastest way to the synthesize AgNP?
Damian Reply
types of nano material
abeetha Reply
I start with an easy one. carbon nanotubes woven into a long filament like a string
many many of nanotubes
what is the k.e before it land
what is the function of carbon nanotubes?
I'm interested in nanotube
what is nanomaterials​ and their applications of sensors.
Ramkumar Reply
what is nano technology
Sravani Reply
what is system testing?
preparation of nanomaterial
Victor Reply
how to synthesize TiO2 nanoparticles by chemical methods
how did you get the value of 2000N.What calculations are needed to arrive at it
Smarajit Reply
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Mueller Reply
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Source:  OpenStax, Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation. OpenStax CNX. Nov 11, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11325/1.43
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