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How does the Medieval Warm Period compare to current global temperatures?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

While the Medieval Warm Period saw unusually warm temperatures in some regions, globally the planet was cooler than current conditions.

Climate Myth...

Medieval Warm Period was warmer

"For now, though, it is enough just to see the Medieval WARM Period shown to be global, and warmer than today." (Musings from the Chiefio)

At a glance

To explore this topic, the first question must surely be: what was the Medieval Warm Period? The answer lies in the dim and distant past, in modern human terms, that is. Compared to the age of the Earth, at 4.5 billion years, it is a fraction of a very small fraction of a blink of the eye. Nevertheless, let's continue.

The period of time known to archaeologists as the Common Era (CE) roughly covers the past 2000 years. Decades ago it was divided into a series of climate epochs. Although there is no firm consensus regarding their precise duration, the 'Roman Warm Period' covered the first few centuries. The 'Dark Ages Cold Period' was from around 400-800 CE, the 'Medieval Warm Period' was from 800-1200 CE and the 'Little Ice-Age' was from 1200-1850 CE.

Each of these climatic epochs has its origin in old pieces of paleoclimatic evidence from the Northern Hemisphere. Decades ago, it was assumed each such epoch must have been global in extent. But since that time, climatology has steadily moved on. More new ways of reconstructing the Common Era climate have been discovered and refined. Coverage has been extended from those few Northern Hemisphere localities to the entire globe.

Thanks to such improvements, we now know that many of these warming and cooling events were regional, not global effects. The evidence no longer supports the idea of epochs of globally coherent and synchronous climate. Yes it was warm in Europe in the Medieval Warm Period. However, it was much cooler, for example, over the Pacific than it is today.

The coldest epoch of the last millennium is known as the Little Ice Age. But here too, the effects were not the same everywhere at the same time, as pointed out in a recent paper published in Nature. Its authors commented that peak cold occurred at widely-spaced locations hundreds of years apart. Coldest temperatures occurred during the fifteenth century in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. But by the seventeenth century it was coldest in northwestern Europe and southeastern North America.

In contrast the same study found that the warmest period of the past two millennia occurred during the 20th century. The warmth affects more than 98% of the globe. That constitutes solid evidence that modern human-caused global warming is unusual. As the paper says, it is, "unparalleled in terms of absolute temperatures and also unprecedented in global coverage within the past 2,000 years".

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!

Further details

One of the most often cited arguments of those who deny anthropogenic global warming is that the Medieval Warm Period (800-1200 AD) was as warm, or even warmer, than today. Using this as proof to say that we cannot be causing current warming is a faulty notion based upon rhetoric rather than science. So what are the holes in this line of thinking?

Firstly, increasing evidence suggests that the Medieval Warm Period may have been warmer than today in parts of the globe such as in the North Atlantic. The warming thereby allowed Vikings to travel further north than had been previously possible because of reductions in sea ice and land ice in the Arctic. However, evidence also suggests that some places were much cooler than today, including the tropical Pacific. All in all, when the warm places are averaged out with the cool places, it becomes clear that the overall warmth was likely similar to early to mid 20th Century warming.

Since that early 20th Century warming, global temperatures have risen well beyond those reached during the Medieval Warm Period. The National Academy of Sciences released a report on climate reconstructions in 2006. In the Overview chapter, the authors stated it was 'likely' that current temperatures are hotter than during the Medieval Warm Period, saying the following:

"Presently available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900".

Further evidence obtained since 2006 suggests that even in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures have now gone well beyond those experienced during Medieval times (Figure 1). This was also confirmed by a major paper from 78 scientists representing 60 scientific institutions around the world in 2013. A Skeptical Science blog-post about the publication may be read here.

Northern Hemisphere Temperature Reconstruction. 

Figure 1: Northern Hemisphere Temperature Reconstruction by Moberg et al. (2005) shown in blue, Instrumental Temperatures from NASA shown in Red.

Secondly, the Medieval Warm Period has known causes. These explain both the scale of the warmth and its regional pattern. Importantly, both self-evidently differ from the modern-day warming caused predominantly by human activities. Based on global paleoclimate reconstructions over the past 2,000 years, a 2019 study found absolutely no evidence for pre-industrial globally-coherent cold or warm epochs. Instead, it found that the warmest period of the past two millennia occurred during the twentieth century and covered more than 98% of the globe. The paper concluded, "not only unparalleled in terms of absolute temperatures but also unprecedented in spatial consistency within the context of the past 2,000 years."

In the same paper, the authors commented that, in particular, the coldest epoch of the last millennium, long referred to as the Little Ice Age, seems to have seen peak cold at widely-spaced locations and hundreds of years apart, strongly emphasising both the regionality and non-synchronicity of the events. Coldest temperatures occurred, "during the fifteenth century in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, during the seventeenth century in northwestern Europe and southeastern North America, and during the mid-nineteenth century over most of the remaining regions."

Overall, our conclusions are:

  1. Globally temperatures are warmer than they have been during the last 2,000 years;
  2. Both warmth and cold seem to have occurred at times in the last 2000 years but only on a regional and non-synchronous basis.
  3. the causes of Medieval warming are not the same as those causing late 20th century warming.

Last updated on 9 May 2024 by John Mason. View Archives

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Argument Feedback

Please use this form to let us know about suggested updates to this rebuttal.


Many thanks to gp2 who generated the temperature pattern for the last decade based on NOAA data.

Denial101x video

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial:


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Comments 251 to 272 out of 272:

  1. RBF @250 , your "facts" sound a bit confused.

    You are suggesting that the sealevel fell two feet over several centuries from the Medieval Warm Period until the depths of the Little Ice Age.   Please cite your supporting source for your extraordinary statement !   (And over a total cooling of about half a degree Celsius ~ truly remarkable ! )

  2. A further reply to comment #250

    The scientific study Kopp et al 2016 [published in the Proceedings of the NAS ] indicates that the fall in MSL was about 10 cm (not 50 cm) during the MWP to LIA transition.   The poster at #250 had wildly exaggerated the sea level fall.

  3. RBFOLLETT – first I would say, that if you are not interested in having your opinions shaped by data and instead are flaying around trying to rationalize a predetermined position on global warning, then Skepticalscience is not the site for you. Motivated reasoning is all the rage over at WUWT.

    If you are actually interested in the science, then there are some misconceptions to look at.

    Firstly, climate science works with global mean temperature anomaly. This is an important distinction since a global mean temperature is difficult to define and impossible to measure. The discussion and methodology associated with this is in the seminal Hansen and Lebederf 1987. As to actual error bounds on temperature record, try here where there is reference to how uncertainty bounds are determined and where you can find code to play it yourself.

    Secondly, you seem to implying that if, for example, you could only measure a person’s height to nearest centimetre, then you believe that the average person’s height could only be expressed to nearest centimetre? This is not true and perhaps you need to refresh yourself about the Law of Large Numbers.

    Finally, you should know that proof is some you do in mathematics; science cannot prove anything. What we do have in massive empirical support from many fields supporting the theory of climate.

    You make a massive number of frankly false assertions and unsurprisely provide no evidence to support them (in contravention of this sites comment policy). I suspect you are getting your information from disinformation sites rather than published science.

  4. Ok.  The MWP globally was a blip, possibly little more than noise.

    * How large was it regionally?  

    I've seen mentions of growing grapes in Germany some 200m higher than before. Grapes in England. Etc.  Seems a large effect for 1 degree.


    * To what extent can the changes that occured during the MWP be used as a predictor of the types of changes our current warming will cause.

  5. Sgbotsford @254 ,

    check the video (above) and the graph of sea-level changes ~ the sea-level by itself indicates that the MWP had a temperature rise which was slow and slight, and was not from worldwide (multi-regional) warming.   OTOH the current warming is clearly not simply a regional matter ~ sea-level is rising fast and still accelerating, major ice-melting is occurring.   And the fundamental origin for the warming is clearly a very different matter.

    Today vs MWP is such an apples & oranges comparison, that we cannot draw any useful prediction from the MWP event (quite apart from the question of magnitude inequality).

  6. "I've seen mentions of growing grapes in Germany some 200m higher than before. Grapes in England. Etc. Seems a large effect for 1 degree."

    Caution needs to be exercised when possibly over-interpreting local growing conditions experienced for periods of time less than a century.  Extrapolating them to say anything about global conditions is usually a waste of time.

    For example, while England had 42 vineyards at the time of the Domesday Book, as is well known, there are now nearly 400 commercial English vineyards today. So the climate today in England is much more conducive to wine-making than during the Roman occupation of England.

    "It is generally agreed that the Romans introduced the vine to Britain. It has also been inferred that the climate in Britain at that time was warmer. At the end of the first century AD, however, the writer Tacitus declared that our climate was “objectionable”, and not at all suitable for growing vines.

    Today, there are vineyards in nearly every county of England and Wales, and there are vines now planted in Scotland. Much of the acreage and vineyards lie in the southern part of England, and more specifically Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Those few hundred acres first planted has now grown to over 5,000. In the last ten years alone, the acreage planted has more than doubled, and nearly tripled since 2000. Last year, around 1 million vines were planted – the highest planting in a single year, and perhaps a higher volume is set to be planted in 2018. All of this will lead to some substantial increases in production."



    By 1977, there were 124 reasonable-sized vineyards in production – more than at any other time over the previous millennium. The website of the English wine producers suggests that at present the extent of vineyards in Britain probably surpasses that of the Medieval Warm Period between circa 900 AD to 1300 AD.


    Be especially wary of those claiming the Vikings grew grapes in Greenland:

    Let me…assure you that the last wine plants to grow in Greenland were those that grew…60 million years ago.”

  7. Hi,

    How is past climate data collected?  Is it through proxy studies analyzing a variety of different sources such as corals, stalagmites, tree rings, boreholes and ice cores?


  8. yes. Where no temperature measurements exist, then proxies are all you have.

    Dont let a denier take you down the path of believing that climate theory depending on paleoclimate studies. Paleoclimate studies are useful testing grounds - if our current understanding of climate cannot reproduce measurements of temperature given the uncertaintites in the temperature measurement and our understanding of the forcings operating at the time, then the theory would be in trouble. Not the case. Paleoclimate is also useful in constraining climate sensitivity. However, uncertainties in estimating solar output, aerosols, albedo and temperature all create significant limits compared to analysing the physics of the climate system today.

  9. Specifics on proxy datasets can be found here.

  10. Time for some updates to this thread:

    "'No doubt left' about scientific consensus on global warming, say experts"

    The Guardian article then cites 3 brand-new studies, just published, which show that:

    "there has never been a period in the last 2,000 years when temperature changes have been as fast and extensive as in recent decades"

    PAGES 2K 2019 Figure 1A

    Neukom et al 2019 - No evidence for globally coherent warm and cold periods over the preindustrial Common Era

    PAGES 2K 2019 - Consistent multidecadal variability in global temperature reconstructions and simulations over the Common Era

    This paper should finally stop climate change deniers claiming that the recent observed coherent global warming is part of a natural climate cycle. This paper shows the truly stark difference between regional and localised changes in climate of the past and the truly global effect of anthropogenic greenhouse emissions,” said Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College London.

    Bronnimann et al 2019 - Last phase of the Little Ice Age forced by volcanic eruptions

    "global mean annual temperatures are higher now than any time in the last 2,000 years, with the middle of the 20th century either matching or exceeding Common Era temperatures as well"

    Tardif et al 2019 - Last Millennium Reanalysis with an expanded proxy database and seasonal proxy modeling

    But even when we push our perspective to the earliest days of the Roman Empire, we cannot discern any event that is remotely equivalent — either in degree or extent — to the warming over the last few decades.”

    St George 2019 - Aberrant synchrony of present-day warming

    Related LINK

    This skeptic meme is stone dead.  Stick a fork in it, it's done.

  11. @258 scaddenp; 259 Daniel Bailey

    Thank you so much!  I love how much I learn posting here! :)

  12. Just noticed this paper which looks at global coherence of warm and cold periods over last 2000 years. Not only was MWP not globally coherent but also the LIA had similarly mixed global distribution. Unlike the current warming period...

  13. This is fascinating work disputing MWP as localized instead of global

  14. tmillion @263,

    The 'work' you link to is actually a piece of denialist 'research' saying it is trying to answer such questions as "How could it have been so warm one thousand years ago when CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were on a low pre-industrial level?" Note the links provide are to WUWT and CO2Science, two well-known denialist websites.

    The quote provided at the link @263 is extracted from within the final paragraph of IPCC AR5 Section 5.3.5. Perhaps "quotes" would be a better description as the first half of the quote concerns NH while the final parts of the quote concerns the tropics. As provided at the link, these "quotes" don't make a lot of sense.

  15. MA Rodger @264

    Other than your comment about the truncation of the last paragraph of IPCC AR5 Section 5.3.5, do you have an actual complaint with the article's arguments? 

  16. Where to start. Firstly as MA Rodger was pointing out, it is misrepresenting what the science says by selective quoting. Secondly, it is playing with a strawman fallacy in the title - CO2 is not the only driver of warming and model reconstructions can reproduce the pattern of warming.

    An important contrast with today's warming is the lack of synchronicity globally. The CO2 science project hides that by going for very long time period and some very dubious baselining. There are numerous peer-reviewed papers which recontruct both NH and global temperatures which take a rigorous approach to handling the proxies (See the AR4 and AR5 for the list and plots) but of course these dont get the "right answer" for denialists.

  17. JP1980 @265 , 

    as Scaddenp (@266) indicates, there is much that is wrong with KalteSonne's blog article.

    In the first paragraph, the blog asserts that the MWP was hotter (or "similar") in temperature to today.  Which is false.  Various types of proxy temperature measurements show that the Medieval Warm Period was cooler than today's global climate.  In addition, the land ice-shelves and glaciers were larger than today's, and the mean sea level was lower than today's.  All these three types of evidence demonstrate the warmth of today and the relative coolness of the MWP.

    KalteSonne is indulging in wishful thinking — not scientific thinking.  Having made such a blunder to start with, it is not surprising to find that there are subsequent errors.

    In the second paragraph, he [presumably he] goes on to present a misleading picture by taking quotes out of context.  He misrepresents the message of the IPCC.  And he fails to understand that the MWP was such a slight deviation of average world temperature, that one would of course not expect it to show up in a "hindcast" of computational models based on 20th/21st Century climate.  (Hence his attack on climatologists' models — an attack which seems to be his underlying purpose in discussing the MWP.)

    A further failure of KalteSonne, is his failure to acknowledge (to himself and to his readers) that the current warming event is not only larger and definitely worldwide . . . and that it is greatly faster & has a continuing steep upward trajectory ~ all of which is distinctly different from the MWP.

    Clearly, he fails to understand the mechanisms causing climate change.

    In short: KalteSonne's ideas are nonsense.

  18. Recommended supplemental reading:

    Current climate warming is rapid and occurring on a global scale, unlike past periods of regional climate fluctuations, Edited by Katy Dynarski, Climate Feedback, Feb 21, 2020

  19. Thanks to Daniel Bailey for the useful update links. I wonder if these could be incorporated into the rebuttal?

    Link rot means PAGES 2K work is now best found at

  20. I followed the link for the Mann 2008 article given for Figure 4 but I don't see any figure in that article that references global temperatures.  Is it the wrong link or is the figure created in some other way?

  21. astrophile @270,

    The link in the OP is to the paper Mann et al (2008) which in turn does provide links to Fig s6 but not very helpfully. Another on-line version of the paper here does give a link to the Supporting Information. Fig s6 resides within that Supporting Information where you will see the OP's Fig 4 is reproducing the paper's Fig s6f.

  22. Please note: the basic version of this rebuttal was updated on May 9, 2024 and now includes an "at a glance“ section at the top. To learn more about these updates and how you can help with evaluating their effectiveness, please check out the accompanying blog post @

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