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CO2 lags temperature - what does it mean?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate Advanced

CO2 didn't initiate warming from past ice ages but it did amplify the warming.  In fact, about 90% of the global warming followed the CO2 increase.

Climate Myth...

CO2 lags temperature

"An article in Science magazine illustrated that a rise in carbon dioxide did not precede a rise in temperatures, but actually lagged behind temperature rises by 200 to 1000 years.  A rise in carbon dioxide levels could not have caused a rise in temperature if it followed the temperature." (Joe Barton, US House of Representatives (Texas) 1985-2019) - Full Statement

At a glance

Antarctic ice-core data today provide a continuous record on temperature and atmospheric composition that goes back for some 800,000 years. The data track the last few glacial periods and their abrupt endings, with rapid transitions into mild interglacials. But in some of the ice-cores, temperature rises first and is followed, a few hundred years later, by rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

Certain purveyors of climate-myths seized on this observation, claiming it to be “proof” that carbon dioxide doesn't cause climate change. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But how? The answer lies in a beer-can.

In fact, you can do this one yourself. You need two cans of any fizzy beer. On a nice summer's day, take one out of the fridge and place it outside in direct sunshine for a few hours. Leave the other where it is. Then open the two at the same time. The warm one will froth like mad, half-emptying the can and making a mess. What is left in the can will be horrible and flat. Conversely, the one straight from the fridge will just give a “pfft” noise and will be pleasant to drink, being cool and fizzy.

What's that got to do with this myth? Well, you have just demonstrated an important point about the solubility of CO2 in water. CO2 gives fizzy drinks their fizz and it is far more soluble in colder water. As the water warms, it cannot hold onto as much CO2 and it starts to degas. Hence that flat lager.

Exactly the same principle applies to the oceans. When global warming is initiated, both land and the oceans start to warm up. On land, permafrost starts to thaw out, over vast areas. Carbon dioxide (and methane) are released, having been trapped in that permafrost deep-freeze for thousands of years. At sea, that “warm beer effect” kicks in. Thanks to both processes, atmospheric CO2 levels rise in earnest, amplifying and maintaining the warmth. That rise in CO2 thereby caused more of the gas to be released, warming things up yet more in a vicious cycle, known as a positive feedback. Other feedbacks kick in too: for example as the ice-sheets shrink, their ability to reflect Solar energy back out to space likewise decreases, so that heat is instead absorbed by Earth’s surface.

The trigger for the initial warming at the end of an ice-age is a favourable combination of cyclic patterns in Earth's orbit around the Sun, leading to a significant increase in the solar energy received by Earth's Northern Hemisphere. That's no secret. Glacial-interglacial transitions are caused by several factors working in combination – triggers and feedbacks. We've understood that for a long time.

And when you think about it, saying CO2 lagged temperature during glacial-interglacial transitions so cannot possibly be causing modern warming is a bit like saying, “chickens do not lay eggs, because they have been observed to hatch from them".

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

That CO2 can lag behind but amplify temperature during a glacial-interglacial transition was in fact predicted as long ago as 1990. In the paper The Ice-Core Record: Climate Sensitivity and Future Greenhouse Warming by Claude Lorius and colleagues published in the journal Nature in 1990, a key passage reads:

"The discovery of significant changes in climate forcing linked with the composition of the atmosphere has led to the idea that changes in the CO2 and CH4 content have played a significant part in the glacial-interglacial climate changes by amplifying, together with the growth and decay of the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets, the relatively weak orbital forcing and by constituting a link between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere climates."

This was published over a decade before ice core records were accurate enough to confirm a CO2 lag. We now know that CO2 did not initiate the warming from past ice ages but it did amplify the warming. In fact, about 90% of the global warming followed the CO2 increase.

Antarctic ice cores reveal an interesting story, now going back for around 800,000 years. During this period, changes in CO2 levels tend to follow changes in temperatures by about 600 to 1000 years, as illustrated in Figure 1 below. This has led some to disingenuously claim that CO2 simply cannot be responsible for the current global warming. Unsurprisingly, such a claim does not tell the whole story.

Figure 1: Vostok ice core records for carbon dioxide concentration and temperature change.

The initial change in temperature as an ice-age comes to an end is triggered by cyclic changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun, affecting the amount of seasonal sunlight reaching Earth’s surface in the Northern Hemisphere. The cycles are lengthy: all of them take tens of thousands of years to complete.As both land and oceans start to warm up, they both release large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, from melting permafrost and from warming ocean water, since CO2 solubility in water is greater in cold conditions. That release enhances the greenhouse effect, amplifying the warming trend and leading to yet more CO2 being degassed. In other words, increasing CO2 levels become both the cause and effect of further warming. Once started, it’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle - an excellent example of what science refers to as a positive climate feedback.

Indeed, such positive feedbacks are necessary to complete the shifts from glacial to interglacial conditions, since the effect of orbital changes alone are too weak to fully drive such variations. Additional positive feedbacks which play an important role in this process include other greenhouse gases like methane - you may have seen videos of that gas bubbling up through icy lakes in permafrost country and being ignited. Changes in ice sheet cover and vegetation patterns determine the amount of Solar energy getting absorbed by Earth’s surface or being reflected back out to space: decrease an ice-sheet’s area and warming will thereby increase.

The detailed mechanisms for the above general pattern have of course been investigated. In a 2012 study, published in the journal Nature (Shakun et al. 2012), Jeremy Shakun and colleagues looked at global temperature changes at the commencement of the last glacial-interglacial transition. This work added a lot of vital detail to our understanding of the CO2-temperature change relationship. They found that:

1) The Earth's orbital cycles triggered warming in the Arctic approximately 19,000 years ago, causing large amounts of ice to melt, flooding the oceans with fresh water.

2) This influx of fresh water then disrupted ocean current circulation, in turn causing a seesawing of heat between the hemispheres.

3) The Southern Hemisphere and its oceans warmed first, starting about 18,000 years ago. As the Southern Ocean warms, the solubility of CO2 in water falls. This causes the oceans to give up more CO2, releasing it into the atmosphere.

4) Finally, CO2 levels may lag temperature in some ice-core records from Antarctica, but in some other parts of the world the reverse was the case: temperature and CO2 either rose in pace or temperature lagged CO2. Figure 2 demonstrates this graphically and shows how things are never as simplistic as purveyors of misinformation would wish.

Shakun Fig 2a 

Figure 2: Average global temperature (blue), Antarctic temperature (red), and atmospheric CO2 concentration (yellow dots). Source.

Last updated on 14 February 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Further reading

That CO2 lags and amplifies temperature was actually predicted in 1990 in a paper The ice-core record: climate sensitivity and future greenhouse warming by Claude Lorius (co-authored by James Hansen):

"Changes in the CO2 and CH4 content have played a significant part in the glacial-interglacial climate changes by amplifying, together with the growth and decay of the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets, the relatively weak orbital forcing"

The paper also notes that orbital changes are one initial cause for ice ages. This was published over a decade before ice core records were accurate enough to confirm a CO2 lag (thanks to John Mashey for the tip).

Also, gotta love this quote from Deltoid in answer to the CO2 lag argument: See also my forthcoming paper: "Chickens do not lay eggs, because they have been observed to hatch from them".

Further viewing

Denial101x video

Myth Deconstruction

Related resource: Myth Deconstruction as animated GIF

MD Lag

Please check the related blog post for background information about this graphics resource.


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Comments 326 to 350 out of 384:

  1. "Show me any time in last 600 million years where co2 caused temperature rise." Well you can always try the Middle Eocene Climate Optimum or the more dramatic Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. CO2 has repeatedly changed slowly over geological time because of mismatches between volcanism, weathering, etc. But other factors that affect climate also change on these time scales (ocean circulation, albedo, solar input), so it can be hard to disentangle the influences. That doesn't mean they aren't there. As others will attest, the physical attributes of CO2 are what indicate that it must have an effect. Nothing about the rock record disagrees with that, as far as I know.
  2. there is no physical evidence in earth's history to support your theory
    Wrong. There are reams of evidence. Do some research. Just go to, type in "interglacial CO2". You will get 17,900 papers. Try "CO2 climate" and you will get 640,000 papers. The fact that you do not understand or accept the evidence is irrelevant. I suggest that rather than throwing around derogatory comments and dismissing what you do not understand that you go read Spencer Weart's The Discovery of Global Warming. When you are done with that you will be able to intelligently use this site to learn how very thin the "skeptical" arguments are, how serious the problem is, and what all of the science that you dismiss and do not understand actually means. P.S. The climate models are a small (but very useful) part of the vast base of knowledge behind the issues. You will understand that when you've finished with a serious effort to learn the science.
  3. Firstly, GHG arent the only forcing. Our theory of climate states that climate will go with the sum of all forcings. If you want to me to "show you" a graph where CO2 is changing climate then you need time when GHG is dominant forcing. The modern era since 1970 is one immediate example. The PETM would be another. A more rigorous phenomenological approach would be to examine temperature as a function of all forcing, eg see Benestad and Schmidt 2009. But for the glacial cycle, the problem is more one of arithmetic. The NH solar forcing and albedo are not strong enough to explain the temperature response by themselves. This was one of the original objections to Milankovitch theory. Furthermore, why is a NH forcing able to cool the SH, whereas same forcing in SH doesnt have an effect? The reason being that the CO2 feedback is global rather than hemispheric. On top of this, you have difficult problem of explain why the directly measurable effect of GHG on surface irradiation does not change temperature if you wish to discount GHG as having an effect on climate.
  4. Briago1, This is in response to your point 4 here.
    4) I keep reading that ice cores show in increase in temperature after an increase in CO2 (this is debatable, but I'll skip that). This tid bit is then being used to say that since CO2 has risen x amount in 30 years, that now we are going to have a temperature rise in the next decade
    No, this information is not being used in that way. Our understanding of physics and myriad other observations tell us what increases in CO2 will do. The ice cores (and other proxies, and other periods of time besides the ice ages) simply confirm this understanding by demonstrating that increasing CO2 levels did affect global temperatures (as would be expected) in the past. But the ice core inference is not the source of the conclusion, but rather simply one of many sources of confirmation.
  5. Now this is interesting: A drop in carbon dioxide appears to be the driving force that led to the Antarctic ice sheet's formation, according to a recent study led by scientists at Yale and Purdue universities of molecules from ancient algae found in deep-sea core samples. The key role of the greenhouse gas in one of the biggest climate events in Earth's history supports carbon dioxide's importance in past climate change and implicates it as a significant force in present and future climate. ..."The evidence falls in line with what we would expect if carbon dioxide is the main dial that governs global climate; if we crank it up or down there are dramatic changes" It may be time to reinvestigate that whole 'lag' thing.
  6. Which causes what it kinda irrelevant if you consider the direct relationship between average global atmospheric temperatures and atmospheric CO2 content tells us that the next glacerization will be as extreme as the current rise in CO2 content, throwing us into an Ice Age the likes of which history has never seen, possibly only leaving a band around the equator without ice.
  7. @ 129CBRider If I understand you correctly, you are of the persuasion that believes in cycles, and that the next cycle of an ice age is imminent. Of course, that would be ignoring a very great deal of established physics, based on centuries of research, by many thousands of scientists. Not to mention that these are the same physics that underpins the technology of today. So I recommend that Newcomers, Start Here and then learn The Big Picture, plus The Big Picture Look at Global Warming. I also recommend watching this video on why CO2 is the biggest climate control knob in Earth's history. As an FYI, assertions lacking support in the science and the literature tend to get ignored. Failure to back up repeated assertions with source citations tends to get comments moderated or deleted.
  8. I am very interested in understanding how the Milankovich cycle at the top of the cycle reverses warming when the influence of CO2 is so strong and continuing to experience positive feedback (although perhaps diminishing). I understand that "Northern ice sheets melt less during summer and gradually grow over thousands of years. This increases the Earth's albedo which amplifies the cooling, spreading the ice sheets farther." However, before that can happen, the cooling effect to prevent the melt via the top end Milankovitch factors must overcome the very powerful warming effect that the high level of CO2 has. At this point, of course, CO2 is still rising and ought to be more powerful than any other time during the cycle. The Imbrie, et all papers don't deal with this that I can see. I realize that this issue isn't novel having been discussed on this forum before, but what peer reviewed authority engages this issue? Thanks!!!
  9. jzk The change in CO2 between glacial and interglacial conditions is only from 190 to 270 ppm, an as the fadiative forcing from CO2 only increases logarithmically it isn't necessarily "very strong" compared to the change in solar forcing due to Milankovic cycles. You would need to compute the numnbers to know whether your argument was valid, and I strongly suspect that the scientists did that before publishing their finings. Also the feedback from CO2 is self limiting in the sense that IIRC the outgassing of CO2 due to heating of the oceans is linear, so in the absence of external forcings it would rapidly (on geological timescales) reach a new equilibrium. Thus by the time Milankovic cyle went into a cooling phase CO2 would no longer be on the way up.
  10. jzk @333, the short answer is that after the passing of the peak Milankovitch NH Summer warming, the Earth cools very slowly over several thousand years. Because cooler water absorbs more CO2 than warm water, that cooling gradually reduces the CO2 level in the atmosphere. Studies have shown that a Milankovitch Minimum NH summer warming will initiate a new glacial only if CO2 levels are at around 240 ppmv (+/- 40 ppmv). The large range is due to the fact that there are a range of studies giving partly overlaping results in that interval, and also because the level of CO2 that will stop the initiation of a glaciation depends critically on the strength of the Milankovitch Cycle. Historically, at least on glacial commenced when CO2 levels where at around 280 ppmv, but most initiate with levels around 240 ppmv, and Berger and Loutre show that even in a weak cycle, glaciation will initiate with CO2 levels around 210 ppmv.
  11. jzk wrote: "However, before that can happen, the cooling effect to prevent the melt via the top end Milankovitch factors must overcome the very powerful warming effect that the high level of CO2 has." No, this is an inaccurate view of the situation. Cooling from the 'negative Milankovitch forcing' does not have to 'overcome' the total accumulated warming from the 'positive Milankovitch forcing' and all feedbacks before cooling sets in. The transition is 'immediate' save for a very short (geologically) lag time. Once the Milankovitch forcing passes the 'warming peak' there is then progressively less of a warming forcing, which results in progressively less atmospheric water vapor (and thus lower water vapor feedback), more ice formation, oceans cool and absorb more CO2, et cetera. There is no (long term) 'inertia' to overcome... when the sign of the forcing changes all the feedbacks do as well.
  12. CB @336, I don't refer to the "accumulated warming" or "inertia" of the temperature rise. However, all of those gasses that are present at peak temperature contribute to warming just by being there. It is not as if they are a "fuel" that burns out, they warm by trapping radiation. Does not that warming need be overcome by the downward Milankovitch forcing in order for other positive cooling feedbacks to kick in? Of course as temperature lowers, CO2 is absorbed, and that contributes to cooling. But first it must start its descent despite the presence of these warming gasses. Again, thanks for helping me with this, any citation to the peer reviewed studies would be much appreciated.
  13. jzk - Feedbacks act as a scaling on whatever forcing changes occur, which is why they are feedbacks. At the peak of an interglacial the climate is in (relative) equilibrium, no thermal inertial to wait for, the climate is not changing (important point). Then the Milankovitch forcing changes downward. If there were no feedbacks whatsoever, such a change in energy will of course cause the climate to cool. With feedbacks (water vapor, CO2 after 500-800 years, albedo changes, etc.) the climate will cool to a larger (positive feedbacks) or smaller (negative feedbacks) extent than the direct forcing change alone would cause. Feedbacks are a response to forcing, not an independent entity. If forcing changes, the feedbacks will as well - they will not (independently) hold the climate energy stationary, or they would instead be independent forcings. Over geological time frames feedbacks are very fast - amplifiers of forcing changes. If you are speaking into a microphone, and drop your voice to a whisper, would you really expect the amplifier to keep the output volume unchanged? Or would you instead expect the output volume to change as per your input volume change times the amplification?
  14. jzk wrote: "Of course as temperature lowers, CO2 is absorbed, and that contributes to cooling. But first it must start its descent despite the presence of these warming gasses." Think about the actual physical factors involved. The Milankovitch forcing is due to orbital tilt. Why/how would GHG have any impact on when the 'sign' of that forcing changed? Yes, "it must start its descent despite the presence of these warming gases"... but there is absolutely no reason that it wouldn't do exactly that. That is, the change in atmospheric composition is obviously not going to change the orbit. You then agree that once the cooling from the orbital shift kicks in "CO2 is absorbed, and that contributes to cooling". So what exactly are you arguing for... in terms of a physical process? You seem to be stuck on some sort of idea that, 'because GHG make it warm, it cannot cool until the GHG are gone'... which is incorrect. The Milankovitch change in orbital forcing is not in any way restrained by the presence of GHGs. It switches to cooling as the orbit of the planet shifts. That cooling lowers the temperature of the oceans and allows them to absorb more CO2... which causes more cooling.
  15. jzk, for a scientific article on the ice age cycle I'd suggest Shackleton 2000.
  16. jzk - forcing from GHG = X; forcing from solar = Y; forcing from albedo = Z Temperature is function of X+Y+Z. If X stays same, and Y goes down, then temperature must drop. Now there is a lag, X will rise slightly while Y goes down, but once Y goes lower than X, the cooling starts and the negative feedbacks kick in to reduce first albedo, then water vapour and then CO2. It is worth noting though that the nature of milankovich cycle is that first change when cycle goes negative will be to albedo, as the effect is primarily on NH mid-high latitudes (where is forcing change is quite large compared to both GHG and global solar change).
  17. Your article states "CO2 amplifies the warming which cannot be explained by orbital cycles alone." How do you square that with Roe, G. (2006), In defense of Milankovitch, Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L24703, doi:10.1029/2006GL027817 "In other words, variations in melting precede variations in CO2. Thus, the relatively small amplitude of the CO2 radiative forcing and the absence of a lead over dV/dt both suggest that CO2 variations play a relatively weak role in driving changes in global ice volume compared to insolation variations." and "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." Thanks!
  18. jzk - I cant quite see why you think that there is an inconsistency between CO2 acting as a feedback to amplify the milankovitch effect and the statements from Roe? 'CO2 amplifies the warming which cannot be explained by orbital cycles alone.' does not in anyway imply the CO2 was the driver - the milankovich insolution variation was clearing the dominant forcing. However, the magnitude of the effect (and change in SH to NH forcing) is extremely difficult to explain from insolution and albedo change alone. See the paleoclimate chapter of AR4 WG1 for details of the relative forcings.
  19. scaddenp, Did you read Roe? Roe doesn't say that CO2 has no effect, just that it is not necessary to drive the glacial interglacial cycle. Roe states that the variations in insolation forcing exceed direct CO2 radiative forcing by a factor of five. When you say it is extremely difficult to explain from insolation alone, Roe does just that. Read the whole thing, if you haven't, and then I would like to hear what you think. Thanks.
  20. The "5x" figure is talking about the relative strengths of forcing on the ice-caps (65N) which I agree (with the lag) rules out CO2 variation as "driving" the ice age. This isnt controversial - consensus would agree with Roe - Milankovitch does drive the cycle. However, CO2 is important on global scale. As Roe notes: "This certainly does not rule out CO2 as a primary cause of tropical or other climate variations, or of the apparent synchronization of the ice-age signal between hemispheres" ie CO2 is important in explaining how a forcing operating at 65N can overwhelm an opposite forcing in the SH and drive the cycle there too. From AR4 - the global GHG forcing for LGM cf today is -2.8W/m2. Albedo at -3.8, and vegetation change and aerosols estimated at -1W/m2 each.
  21. John Russell I think we are going to need more research to decide whether CO2 lags temperature or vice versa. The simple model in my mind is that temperature increases are amplified by CO2 increases. This is due to slow feedbacks on the order of hundreds to a 1000 or so years, things like CO2 from permafrost and methane from the deep ocean. The leading or lagging of CO2 could be more complex however since the systems are very nonlinear. For example some initial warming could cause a pulse of CO2 that leads to a larger warming. That may be what was being observed in the paper you linked to.
  22. Eric (skeptic) that is a false dilemma, CO2 can lag temperature, or it can lead temperature, and there is evidence for both in paleoclimate data. Generally it depends whether CO2 is acting as a feedback (mostly due to the dependence of the ocean/atmopshere carbon exchange on temperature) or a forcing (e.g. rapid chemical weathering following the uplift of the Appalacians reducing atmospheric CO2 leading to cooler temperatures). Another example of CO2 acting as a forcing is the increase in atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels leading to increasing temperatures.
  23. Dikran, I agree it can be both. But there's not much uncertainty in FIgure 1 above; temperature leads and CO2 is a feedback because the best theory for cycles is tilt and eccentricity driving temperature (unless tilt and eccentricity drives CO2). I don't have a copy of the recent paper so I can't evaluate the claim that a hemisphere of CO2 drives two hemispheres of warming, but it doesn't make much sense to me.
  24. Eric, yes in the circumstances shown in figure 1 CO2 is acting as a feedback to Milankovic forcing, so it is unsurprising that CO2 lags temperature. So what? That doesn't mean that the current rise in CO2 is natural rather than anthropogenic (it is very straightforward to disprove that hypothesis). Also we don't have one hemisphere of CO2, CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere, and it only takes a year or so for fossil fuel CO2 generated in the northern hemisphere to reach the southern hemisphere.
  25. I just updated this rebuttal with some information (and 1 figure) from Shakun et al. (2012) which gives more information and nuance regarding the CO2-temperature interaction. We'll publish a post on the paper tonight.

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