IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

6.3.2 What Does the Record of the Mid-Pliocene Show?

The Mid-Pliocene (about 3.3 to 3.0 Ma) is the most recent time in Earth’s history when mean global temperatures were substantially warmer for a sustained period (estimated by GCMs to be about 2°C to 3°C above pre-industrial temperatures; Chandler et al., 1994; Sloan et al., 1996; Haywood et al., 2000; Jiang et al., 2005), providing an accessible example of a world that is similar in many respects to what models estimate could be the Earth of the late 21st century. The Pliocene is also recent enough that the continents and ocean basins had nearly reached their present geographic configuration. Taken together, the average of the warmest times during the middle Pliocene presents a view of the equilibrium state of a globally warmer world, in which atmospheric CO2 concentrations (estimated to be between 360 to 400 ppm) were likely higher than pre-industrial values (Raymo and Rau, 1992; Raymo et al., 1996), and in which geologic evidence and isotopes agree that sea level was at least 15 to 25 m above modern levels (Dowsett and Cronin, 1990; Shackleton et al., 1995), with correspondingly reduced ice sheets and lower continental aridity (Guo et al., 2004).

Both terrestrial and marine palaeoclimate proxies (Thompson, 1991; Dowsett et al., 1996; Thompson and Fleming, 1996) show that high latitudes were significantly warmer, but that tropical SSTs and surface air temperatures were little different from the present. The result was a substantial decrease in the lower-tropospheric latitudinal temperature gradient. For example, atmospheric GCM simulations driven by reconstructed SSTs from the Pliocene Research Interpretations and Synoptic Mapping Group (Dowsett et al., 1996; Dowsett et al., 2005) produced winter surface air temperature warming of 10°C to 20°C at high northern latitudes with 5°C to 10°C increases over the northern North Atlantic (~60°N), whereas there was essentially no tropical surface air temperature change (or even slight cooling) (Chandler et al., 1994; Sloan et al., 1996; Haywood et al., 2000, Jiang et al., 2005). In contrast, a coupled atmosphere-ocean experiment with an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 400 ppm produced warming relative to pre-industrial times of 3°C to 5°C in the northern North Atlantic, and 1°C to 3°C in the tropics (Haywood et al., 2005), generally similar to the response to higher CO2 discussed in Chapter 10.

The estimated lack of tropical warming is a result of basing tropical SST reconstructions on marine microfaunal evidence. As in the case of the Last Glacial Maximum (see Section 6.4), it is uncertain whether tropical sensitivity is really as small as such reconstructions suggest. Haywood et al. (2005) found that alkenone estimates of tropical and subtropical temperatures do indicate warming in these regions, in better agreement with GCM simulations from increased CO2 forcing (see Chapter 10). As in the study noted above, climate models cannot produce a response to increased CO2 with large high-latitude warming, and yet minimal tropical temperature change, without strong increases in ocean heat transport (Rind and Chandler, 1991).

The substantial high-latitude response is shown by both marine and terrestrial palaeodata, and it may indicate that high latitudes are more sensitive to increased CO2 than model simulations suggest for the 21st century. Alternatively, it may be the result of increased ocean heat transports due to either an enhanced thermohaline circulation (Raymo et al., 1989; Rind and Chandler, 1991) or increased flow of surface ocean currents due to greater wind stresses (Ravelo et al., 1997; Haywood et al., 2000), or associated with the reduced extent of land and sea ice (Jansen et al., 2000; Knies et al., 2002; Haywood et al., 2005). Currently available proxy data are equivocal concerning a possible increase in the intensity of the meridional overturning cell for either transient or equilibrium climate states during the Pliocene, although an increase would contrast with the North Atlantic transient deep-water production decreases that are found in most coupled model simulations for the 21st century (see Chapter 10). The transient response is likely to be different from an equilibrium response as climate warms. Data are just beginning to emerge that describe the deep ocean state during the Pliocene (Cronin et al., 2005). Understanding the climate distribution and forcing for the Pliocene period may help improve predictions of the likely response to increased CO2 in the future, including the ultimate role of the ocean circulation in a globally warmer world.