PNAS | Mobile ice age

  1. Sybren Drijfhouta,b,1,
  2. Emily Gleesonc,
  3. Henk A. Dijkstrad, and
  4. Valerie Livinae
  1. aDepartment of Climate Research, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, 3730AE, De Bilt, The Netherlands;
  2. bSchool of Ocean and Earth Sciences, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton SO14 3TB, United Kingdom;
  3. cResearch, Environment and Applications Division, Met Éireann, Dublin 9, Ireland;
  4. dInstitute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht, Utrecht University, 3584 CC Utrecht, The Netherlands; and
  5. eNational Physical Laboratory, Teddington TW11 0LW, United Kingdom
  1. Edited by Mark H. Thiemens, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA, and approved October 18, 2013 (received for review March 15, 2013)


There is a long-standing debate about whether climate models are able to simulate large, abrupt events that characterized past climates. Here, we document a large, spontaneously occurring cold event in a preindustrial control run of a new climate model. The event is comparable to the Little Ice Age both in amplitude and duration; it is abrupt in its onset and termination, and it is characterized by a long period in which the atmospheric circulation over the North Atlantic is locked into a state with enhanced blocking. To simulate this type of abrupt climate change, climate models should possess sufficient resolution to correctly represent atmospheric blocking and a sufficiently sensitive sea-ice model.


Abrupt climate change is abundant in geological records, but climate models rarely have been able to simulate such events in response to realistic forcing. Here we report on a spontaneous abrupt cooling event, lasting for more than a century, with a temperature anomaly similar to that of the Little Ice Age. The event was simulated in the preindustrial control run of a high-resolution climate model, without imposing external perturbations. Initial cooling started with a period of enhanced atmospheric blocking over the eastern subpolar gyre. In response, a southward progression of the sea-ice margin occurred, and the sea-level pressure anomaly was locked to the sea-ice margin through thermal forcing. The cold-core high steered more cold air to the area, reinforcing the sea-ice concentration anomaly east of Greenland. The sea-ice surplus was carried southward by ocean currents around the tip of Greenland. South of 70°N, sea ice already started melting and the associated freshwater anomaly was carried to the Labrador Sea, shutting off deep convection. There, surface waters were exposed longer to atmospheric cooling and sea surface temperature dropped, causing an even larger thermally forced high above the Labrador Sea. In consequence, east of Greenland, anomalous winds changed from north to south, terminating the event with similar abruptness to its onset. Our results imply that only climate models that possess sufficient resolution to correctly represent atmospheric blocking, in combination with a sensitive sea-ice model, are able to simulate this kind of abrupt climate change.