A seminal book by Milankovitch in 1941 proposed that the sequence of ice ages that has characterized long term changes in the Earth’s climate over the past hundreds of thousands of years was due to changes in the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth as a result of small variations in the Earth’s orientation and orbit with respect to the sun. Since then research has shown that Milankovitch cycles by themselves do not determine the timing of glacial and interglacial cycles and that we still lack a unified mechanism that links changes in Earth’s orbit to ice ages.
Approximately 800,000 years ago something changed in the Earth’s climate system that led to the climate then following a series of approximately 100,000 year cycles. Small, predictable changes in the Earth’s orbit about the Sun act as triggers for the glacial and interglacial periods, but other factors such as ice sheet volume, CO2 concentration, and biological feedback mechanisms are also involved.
The last deglaciation was characterized by increases in surface temperatures of 10-15 °C punctuated by millennial-scale warming/cooling periods, pulses of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and asynchronously increasing methane. A geospatial-temporal variance analysis reveals a global warming trend correlating with rising CO2 on which is superimposed second trend millennial-scale regional warming/cooling periods associated with variation in the strength of the Atlantic overturning current.
In January 1998, a collaborative ice-drilling project between Russia, the United States, and France at the Russian Vostok revealed that over the past four cycles atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide correlates closely with Antarctic air-temperature. The analysis also suggests a sequence of events that is characteristic of every termination; warming by orbital forcing, then increasing greenhouse gases, and followed by ice sheet melting and reduced albedo.