Climate Dynamics

, Volume 32, Issue 2–3, pp 143–165 | Cite as

Orbital forcing and role of the latitudinal insolation/temperature gradient

  • Basil A. S. DavisEmail author
  • Simon Brewer


Orbital forcing of the climate system is clearly shown in the Earths record of glacial–interglacial cycles, but the mechanism underlying this forcing is poorly understood. Traditional Milankovitch theory suggests that these cycles are driven by changes in high latitude summer insolation, yet this forcing is dominated by precession, and cannot account for the importance of obliquity in the Ice Age record. Here, we investigate an alternative forcing based on the latitudinal insolation gradient (LIG), which is dominated by both obliquity (in summer) and precession (in winter). The insolation gradient acts on the climate system through differential solar heating, which creates the Earths latitudinal temperature gradient (LTG) that drives the atmospheric and ocean circulation. A new pollen-based reconstruction of the LTG during the Holocene is used to demonstrate that the LTG may be much more sensitive to changes in the LIG than previously thought. From this, it is shown how LIG forcing of the LTG may help explain the propagation of orbital signatures throughout the climate system, including the Monsoon, Arctic Oscillation and ocean circulation. These relationships are validated over the last (Eemian) Interglacial, which occurred under a different orbital configuration to the Holocene. We conclude that LIG forcing of the LTG explains many criticisms of classic Milankovitch theory, while being poorly represented in climate models.


Orbital forcing Insolation gradient Temperature gradient Milankovitch Interglacial 



The contribution by Simon Brewer has been funded in part by the EU MOTIF project (EVK2-2001-00263). We acknowledge the PMIP international modeling groups for providing their data for analysis and the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (LSCE) for collecting and archiving the model data. The PMIP2/MOTIF Data Archive is supported by CEA, CNRS, the EU project MOTIF (EVK2-CT-2002-00153) and the Programme National d’Etude de la Dynamique du Climat (PNEDC). The analyses were performed using version 11-20-2005 of the database. More information is available on and We also acknowledge the resources of the NOAA World Data Centre for Paleoclimatology, the PANGAEA Network for Geoscientific & Environmental Data and the European Pollen Database. We would also like to thank Odile Peyron and Carin Anderson for additional data, as well as comments on early drafts by Jed Kaplan, Erin McClymont, Takeshi Nakagawa and Tony Stevenson, as well as by two anonymous referees.


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© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography, Politics and SociologyUniversity of NewcastleNewcastle upon TyneUK
  2. 2.ARVE Group, ISTE, EPFLLausanneSwitzerland
  3. 3.CEREGE, Europôle de l’ArboisAix-en-Provence Cedex 04France

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