Climate Dynamics

, Volume 45, Issue 11–12, pp 3623–3633 | Cite as

Indications for a North Atlantic ocean circulation regime shift at the onset of the Little Ice Age

  • C.-F. SchleussnerEmail author
  • D. V. Divine
  • J. F. Donges
  • A. Miettinen
  • R. V. Donner


A prominent characteristic of the reconstructed Northern Hemisphere temperature signal over the last millennium is the transition from the Medieval Climate Anomaly to the Little Ice Age (LIA). Here we report indications for a non-linear regime shift in the North Atlantic ocean circulation at the onset of the LIA. Specifically, we apply a novel statistical test based on horizontal visibility graphs to two ocean sediment August sea-surface temperature records from the Norwegian Sea and the central subpolar basin and find robust indications of time-irreversibility in both records during the LIA onset. Despite a basin-wide cooling trend, we report an anomalous warming in the central subpolar basin during the LIA that is reproduced in ensemble simulations with the climate model of intermediate complexity CLIMBER-3\(\alpha\) as a result of a non-linear regime shift in the subpolar North Atlantic ocean circulation. The identified volcanically triggered non-linear transition in the model simulations provides a plausible explanation for the signatures of time-irreversibility found in the ocean sediment records. Our findings indicate a potential multi-stability of the North Atlantic ocean circulation and its importance for regional climate change on centennial time scales.


Little Ice Age Volcanic forcing Last millennium  Horizontal visibility graphs Time series irreversibility  Marine sediments Tipping element 



The authors wish to thank Georg Feulner for helpful comments and suggestions and two anonymous reviewers for their comments that helped to improve the manuscript. This work was supported by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt, the Stordalen Foundation, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and the German Federal Ministry for Science and Education (Project CoSy-CC\(^2\), Grant No. 01LN1306A, and Project GLUES). Visibility graph analysis was performed using the Python package pyunicorn developed at PIK (Donges et al. 2013b) that is available at


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • C.-F. Schleussner
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • D. V. Divine
    • 3
    • 4
  • J. F. Donges
    • 2
    • 5
  • A. Miettinen
    • 3
  • R. V. Donner
    • 2
  1. 1.Climate AnalyticsBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact ResearchPotsdamGermany
  3. 3.Norwegian Polar InstituteFram CentreTromsøNorway
  4. 4.Department of Mathematics and StatisticsUniversity of TromsøTromsøNorway
  5. 5.Stockholm Resilience CentreStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden

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