While the rest of the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age, the freezer door remained shut for some time in New Zealand and Tasmania.

That's according to a study published online today in Nature Geoscience, demonstrating how complex ocean and atmospheric behaviour caused rapid seesawing of the global climate coming out of the most recent ice age, more than 13,000 years ago.

Importantly, this new understanding of how the climate could transform so rapidly could give us insights into whether similar events could be lurking in the future under climate change.

The international research team - which included NIWA marine geologist Dr Helen Bostock and GNS Science's Dr Marcus Vandergoes and Dr Giuseppe Cortese - investigated abrupt changes to the global climate 14,700 years ago that caused Antarctica to suddenly stop warming and cool down for around 1,500 years, while the Northern Hemisphere warmed rapidly.


"This abrupt climate change unfolded very differently around the planet due to complicated interactions between the ocean and atmosphere," said study co-author Claire Krause, of the Australian National University.

"In some places in the Northern Hemisphere, the temperature jumped 10 degrees Celsius in the space of a few decades."

The history of climate on Earth is stored in tiny variations in ice, ocean sediments, peat bogs and other natural archives over thousands of years. Recovering this information and deciphering how - and why - the climate has changed in the past is a powerful way of learning about the climate system.

The term "abrupt climate change" described changes in climate that occured over years or decades, compared to human-caused changes in climate that are occurring over decades to centuries.

It had previously been thought that changes in the amount of heat carried north by Atlantic Ocean currents were responsible for past abrupt climate changes
However, the new study found that changes in ocean heat transport were only part of the picture.

The team examined in detail how the climate of the Southern Hemisphere behaved during the period of abrupt warming in Greenland and the North Atlantic.

The scientists then compiled information from a wide array of climate records spanning Antarctic ice cores to north Australian cave records and New Zealand and Patagonian glaciers, marine sediment cores to southern African rodent middens.

"The project brought together a lot of seemingly separate data, and turned them into one story that is much more useful for our understanding of climate," Ms Krause said.


By comparing the climate records with climate model results they were able to confirm previous ideas that increasing northward heat transport in the Atlantic warms the North Atlantic and Greenland at the expense of abrupt cooling in the Southern Ocean - a concept known as the "bipolar ocean seesaw".

Their major new result is to show that the atmospheric circulation adjusts in an effort to compensate for the change in ocean heat transport: as the ocean transports more heat northward the atmosphere responds by transporting more heat southward.

However, the compensation was imperfect: climate changes in different locations throughout the Southern Hemisphere reflected the battle between the opposing ocean and atmospheric heat fluxes.

In the low-latitudes, over the continents, the atmosphere wins out, driving abrupt drying and warming and shifting the location of the monsoon systems.

In the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean, New Zealand and Patagonia, the ocean wins out, driving cooling that is amplified around Antarctica by expanding sea ice.

The research underlines the intimate coupling between the ocean and atmosphere and helps to explain why past abrupt climate change unfolded so differently in different regions.

The study further underlined a warning that climate scientists have been issuing for many years: forcing the climate system into a different state - as occurred during the warming out of the last ice age and as is occurring now - could trigger climate instability with impacts that spread globally.