Milankovitch back to 1974


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Milankovitch and the ice ages – welcome back to 1974

Why am I chuckling? After he’d had misgivings about the Milankovitch theory of the comings and goings of the ice sheets, Luboš Motl now says in The Reference Frame:

… the Milankovitch orbital cycles do describe the glaciation cycles in the recent 1 million years very well and nothing else – CO2 or random internal variations – is needed to account for the bulk of the data.”

You can read Motl’s story in full at

— and download from there a 2006 paper that wins Motl over, by Gerard Roe of the University of Washington in Seattle.

The abstract of that paper reads (with my emphasis added):

The Milankovitch hypothesis is widely held to be one of the cornerstones of climate science. Surprisingly, the hypothesis remains not clearly defined despite an extensive body of research on the link between global ice volume and insolation changes arising from variations in the Earth’s orbit. In this paper, a specific hypothesis is formulated. Basic physical arguments are used to show that, rather than focusing on the absolute global ice volume, it is much more informative to consider the time rate of change of global ice volume. This simple and dynamically-logical change in perspective is used to show that the available records support a direct, zero-lag, antiphased relationship between the rate of change of global ice volume and summertime insolation in the northern high latitudes. Furthermore, variations in atmospheric CO2 appear to lag the rate of change of global ice volume. This implies only a secondary role for CO2 – variations in which produce a weaker radiative forcing than the orbitally-induced changes in summertime insolation – in driving changes in global ice volume.

Roe, G. (2006), In defense of Milankovitch, Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L24703, doi:10.1029/2006GL027

The reason for my chuckles is that the “change in perspective” that Roe adopts was available more than 30 years earlier in the first formal verification of Milankovitch, which I published in Nature in 1974. Using a pocket calculator, I simply assumed that the rate of change in global ice volume per thousand years was proportional to the difference between the summer sunshine at a high-ish northerly latitude and a level of sunshine at which the ice neither advances or retreats.

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