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The three cycles described above have different periods, all of which are long by human standards: 20,000, 40,000, 100,000 and 400,000 years. If we look at the temperature data from ice and sediment cores, we see that these periods are reflected in Earth's climate. In the last million or so years, the 100,000-year eccentricity in the orbit has determined the timing of glaciations, and before that the 40,000-year axial tilt was dominant (Figure Five Myr Climate Change ). These cycles have been important for a long time; geologists have even found evidence of these periods in rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old.

But how do the Milankovitch Cycles change our climate? These orbital cycles do not have much impact on the total insolation the Earth receives: they change only the timing of that insolation. Since the total insolation does not change, these orbital variations have the power to make the Earth's seasons stronger or weaker, but the average annual temperature should stay the same. The best explanation for long term changes in average annual temperature is that the Milankovitch cycles initiate a positive feedback that amplifies the small change in insolation.

Insolation and the albedo feedback

Today, the Earth's orbit is not very eccentric (it is almost circular), but at the beginning of each of the recent ice age periods, the orbit was much more elliptical. This meant that the Earth was further away from the sun during the northern hemisphere summers, reducing the total insolation. Lower insolation meant that the summer months were milder than they would otherwise be, with cooler temperatures. Summer temperatures were also lower when the Earth's axial tilt was smaller, so the two different orbital parameters could reinforce one another's effects, in this case producing especially mild summers.

It is thought that these mild northern summers produced an albedo feedback that made the whole planet slip into an ice age. The northern hemisphere has continents near the poles—Europe, Asia, and North America. Today, these continents have largely temperate climates. During the winter, snow falls across much of the land (see Figure Surface of the Earth in February with Cloud Cover Removed in the previous module) only to melt during the summer months. If the summers are not hot enough to melt all the snow and ice, glaciers can advance, covering more of the land. Because ice has a high albedo, more sunlight is reflected than before, and the Earth is made cooler. This creates a positive feedback, as the cooler conditions allow the ice to advance further—which, in turn, increases the albedo and cools the Earth! Eventually, a large proportion of the northern continents became covered in ice (Figure 800pn Northern Icesheet ).

800pn Northern Icesheet
800pn Northern Icesheet Glacial coverage (light blue) of the northern hemisphere during the ice ages. Source: Hannes Grobe

This positive feedback process works in the other direction, as well. The interglacial periods are ushered in when the orbital parameters create summers that are unusually warm, which melts some of the ice. When the ice sheets shrink, the Earth's albedo decreases, which further warms the system. The giant northern ice sheets shriveled up in a few thousand years as warm summers and decreasing albedo worked together.

These cycles of alternating cooling and warming are also related to changes in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As we observed in Figure Vostok Petit Data , the climate contains higher levels of carbon dioxide during interglacial periods. Although this appears to make sense—carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and so should produce warmer climates—it is also a puzzle, because it is not clear how changes in Milankovitch cycles lead to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is clear that these changes in carbon dioxide are important in making the change in temperature between interglacial and glacial periods so extreme. Several different hypotheses have been proposed to explain why glacial periods produce lower levels of carbon dioxide (it may be related to how the physical changes influence the Earth's ecosystems ability to absorb carbon dioxide: perhaps lower sea levels increase the nutrient supply in the ocean, or the drop in sea level destroys coral reefs, or iron-rich dust from new deserts fertilizes the oceans) but further work on this question remains to be done.

It is a concern for all of us that there are gaps in our understanding of how the feedbacks between insolation, albedo and greenhouse gases operate, as it makes it hard to predict what the consequences of any changes in the climate system might lead to. The current level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is unprecedented in human experience; it is at the highest level ever recorded in the Quaternary. Will the current increase in greenhouse gases lead to a positive feedback, warming the Earth even more?

Review questions

In the text, we discuss how polar ice has a smaller 18 O to 16 O ratio (that is, it has proportionally less heavy isotope water) than ocean water does. Hydrogen also has isotopes, the two most common being hydrogen-1 ( 1 H) and hydrogen-2 ( 2 H, also known as deuterium). Water is made up of both hydrogen and oxygen, and scientists analyze both elements when examining ice cores. Do you predict that polar ice sheets would have a higher ratio or a lower ratio of 1 H to 2 H than ocean water? Will colder global temperatures increase or decrease the amount of 2 H in polar ice?

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In the text, we discuss how polar ice has a smaller 18 O to 16 O ratio (that is, it has proportionally less heavy-isotope water) when the climate is cooler. We also discuss how changes in the ratio of 18 O to 16 O ratio in sediment cores can also be used to determine the climate's average temperature. In ocean sediments, the ratio of 18 O to 16 O increases when the climate is cooler (that is, it has proportionally more heavy isotope water). Explain why isotope ratios in ocean sediment have the opposite reaction to those in polar ice.

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There are three different ways in which the Earth's orbit changes through time. What combination of orbital parameters would be most likely to start an ice age? (Hint: Ice ages require cool northern summers.)

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Do you want to know more about how ice cores are extracted and analyzed? NASA's Earth Observatory has details about the practical issues of drilling ice cores (deep ice needs to "relax" for as long as a year at the surface before being cut open – or it can shatter!) and how chemical data is interpreted. Go to (External Link) for an in-depth article with great links.

Questions & Answers

where we get a research paper on Nano chemistry....?
Maira Reply
nanopartical of organic/inorganic / physical chemistry , pdf / thesis / review
what are the products of Nano chemistry?
Maira Reply
There are lots of products of nano chemistry... Like nano coatings.....carbon fiber.. And lots of others..
Even nanotechnology is pretty much all about chemistry... Its the chemistry on quantum or atomic level
no nanotechnology is also a part of physics and maths it requires angle formulas and some pressure regarding concepts
Preparation and Applications of Nanomaterial for Drug Delivery
Hafiz Reply
Application of nanotechnology in medicine
what is variations in raman spectra for nanomaterials
Jyoti Reply
ya I also want to know the raman spectra
I only see partial conversation and what's the question here!
Crow Reply
what about nanotechnology for water purification
RAW Reply
please someone correct me if I'm wrong but I think one can use nanoparticles, specially silver nanoparticles for water treatment.
yes that's correct
I think
Nasa has use it in the 60's, copper as water purification in the moon travel.
nanocopper obvius
what is the stm
Brian Reply
is there industrial application of fullrenes. What is the method to prepare fullrene on large scale.?
industrial application...? mmm I think on the medical side as drug carrier, but you should go deeper on your research, I may be wrong
How we are making nano material?
what is a peer
What is meant by 'nano scale'?
What is STMs full form?
scanning tunneling microscope
how nano science is used for hydrophobicity
Do u think that Graphene and Fullrene fiber can be used to make Air Plane body structure the lightest and strongest. Rafiq
what is differents between GO and RGO?
what is simplest way to understand the applications of nano robots used to detect the cancer affected cell of human body.? How this robot is carried to required site of body cell.? what will be the carrier material and how can be detected that correct delivery of drug is done Rafiq
analytical skills graphene is prepared to kill any type viruses .
Any one who tell me about Preparation and application of Nanomaterial for drug Delivery
what is Nano technology ?
Bob Reply
write examples of Nano molecule?
The nanotechnology is as new science, to scale nanometric
nanotechnology is the study, desing, synthesis, manipulation and application of materials and functional systems through control of matter at nanoscale
Is there any normative that regulates the use of silver nanoparticles?
Damian Reply
what king of growth are you checking .?
What fields keep nano created devices from performing or assimulating ? Magnetic fields ? Are do they assimilate ?
Stoney Reply
why we need to study biomolecules, molecular biology in nanotechnology?
Adin Reply
yes I'm doing my masters in nanotechnology, we are being studying all these domains as well..
what school?
biomolecules are e building blocks of every organics and inorganic materials.
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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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