Medieval Warm Period

Medieval Warm Period
Northern hemisphere temperature reconstructions for the past 2,000 years

The Medieval Warm Period (MWP), Medieval Climate Optimum, or Medieval Climatic Anomaly was a time of warm climate in the North Atlantic region, that may also have been related to other climate events around the world during that time, including in China,[1] New Zealand,[2] and other countries[3][4][5][6][4][7][8] lasting from about AD 950 to 1250.[9] It was followed by a cooler period in the North Atlantic termed the Little Ice Age. Some refer to the event as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly as this term emphasizes that effects other than temperature were important.[10][11]

Despite substantial uncertainties, especially for the period prior to 1600 when data are scarce, the warmest period of the last 2,000 years prior to the 20th century very likely occurred between 950 and 1100, but temperatures were probably between 0.1°C and 0.2°C below the 1961 to 1990 mean and significantly below the level shown by instrumental data after 1980. The heterogeneous nature of climate during the Medieval Warm Period is illustrated by the wide spread of values exhibited by the individual records.[12]


Initial research

The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) is generally thought to have occurred from about AD 950–1250, during the European Middle Ages.[9] In 1965 Hubert Lamb, one of the first paleoclimatologists, published research based on data from botany, historical document research and meteorology combined with records indicating prevailing temperature and rainfall in England around 1200 and around 1600. He proposed that "Evidence has been accumulating in many fields of investigation pointing to a notably warm climate in many parts of the world, that lasted a few centuries around A.D. 1000–1200, and was followed by a decline of temperature levels till between 1500 and 1700 the coldest phase since the last ice age occurred."[13]

The warm period became known as the MWP, and the cold period was called the Little Ice Age (LIA). However, this view was questioned by other researchers; the IPCC First Assessment Report of 1990 discussed the "Medieval Warm Period around 1000 AD (which may not have been global) and the Little Ice Age which ended only in the middle to late nineteenth century."[14] The IPCC Third Assessment Report from 2001 summarised research at that time, saying "... current evidence does not support globally synchronous periods of anomalous cold or warmth over this time frame, and the conventional terms of 'Little Ice Age' and 'Medieval Warm Period' appear to have limited utility in describing trends in hemispheric or global mean temperature changes in past centuries".[15] Global temperature records taken from ice cores, tree rings, and lake deposits, have shown that, taken globally, the Earth may have been slightly cooler (by 0.03 degrees Celsius) during the 'Medieval Warm Period' than in the early and mid-20th century.[16] Crowley and Lowery (2000)[17] note that "there is insufficient documentation as to its existence in the Southern hemisphere."

Palaeoclimatologists developing region-specific climate reconstructions of past centuries conventionally label their coldest interval as "LIA" and their warmest interval as the "MWP".[16][18] Others follow the convention and when a significant climate event is found in the "LIA" or "MWP" time frames, associate their events to the period. Some "MWP" events are thus wet events or cold events rather than strictly warm events, particularly in central Antarctica where climate patterns opposite to the North Atlantic area have been noticed.

By world region

Evidence exists across the world, often very sparsely, for changes in climatic conditions over time. Some of the "warm period" events documented below are actually "dry periods" or "wet periods".[19]


A 2009 study by Michael Mann et al. finds that the MWP shows "warmth that matches or exceeds that of the past decade in some regions, but which falls well below recent levels globally".[20] Their reconstruction of MWP pattern is characterised by warmth over large part of North Atlantic, Southern Greenland, the Eurasian Arctic, and parts of North America which appears to substantially exceed that of the late 20th century (1961–1990) baseline and is comparable or exceeds that of the past one-to-two decades in some regions. Certain regions such as central Eurasia, northwestern North America, and (with less confidence) parts of South Atlantic, exhibit anomalous coolness.

North Atlantic

Central Greenland reconstructed temperature
The last written records of the Norse Greenlanders are from a 1408 marriage in the church of Hvalsey — today the best-preserved of the Norse ruins.

A radiocarbon-dated box core in the Sargasso Sea shows that the sea surface temperature was approximately 1 °C (1.8 °F) cooler than today approximately 400 years ago (the Little Ice Age) and 1700 years ago, and approximately 1 °C warmer than today 1000 years ago (the Medieval Warm Period).[21]

Using sediment samples from Puerto Rico, the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New England, Mann et al. (2009) found consistent evidence of a peak in North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity during the Medieval Warm Period followed by a subsequent lull in activity.[22]

Through Retrieval and Isotope analysis of Marine Cores and examination of Mollusc Growth patterns from Iceland Patterson et al were able to reconstruct a mollusc growth record at a decadal resolution from the Roman Warm Period through the Medieval Warm Period and into the Little Ice Age [23]

North America

1690 copy of the 1570 Skálholt map, based on documentary information about earlier Norse sites in America.

The Vikings took advantage of ice-free seas to colonize Greenland and other outlying lands of the far north.[24] Around 1000AD the climate was sufficiently warm for the north of Newfoundland to support a Viking colony and led to the descriptor "Vinland". The MWP was followed by the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling that lasted until the 19th century, and the Viking settlements eventually died out. In the Chesapeake Bay, researchers found large temperature excursions (changes from the mean temperature of that time) during the Medieval Warm Period (about 950–1250)[9] and the Little Ice Age (about 1400–1700, with cold periods persisting into the early 20th century),[9] possibly related to changes in the strength of North Atlantic thermohaline circulation.[25] Sediments in Piermont Marsh of the lower Hudson Valley show a dry Medieval Warm period from AD 800–1300.[26]

Prolonged droughts affected many parts of the western United States and especially eastern California and the western Great Basin.[16][27] Alaska experienced three time intervals of comparable warmth: AD 1–300, 850–1200, and post-1800.[28] Knowledge of the North American Medieval Warm Period has been useful in dating occupancy periods of certain Native American habitation sites, especially in arid parts of the western U.S.[29][30] Review of more recent archaeological research shows that as the search for signs of unusual cultural changes during the MWP has broadened, some of these early patterns (e.g. violence and health problems) have been found to be more complicated and regionally varied than previously thought while others (e.g., settlement disruption, deterioration of long distance trade, and population movements) have been further corroborated.[31]

Other regions

The climate in equatorial east Africa has alternated between drier than today, and relatively wet. The drier climate took place during the Medieval Warm Period (~AD 1000–1270).[32]

A sediment core from the eastern Bransfield Basin, Antarctic Peninsula, identifies events of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period.[33] The core shows a distinctly cold period about AD 1000–1100, illustrating that during the "warm" period there were, regionally, periods of both warmth and cold.

Corals in the tropical Pacific Ocean suggest that relatively cool, dry conditions may have persisted early in the millennium, consistent with a La Niña-like configuration of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation patterns.[34] Although there is an extreme scarcity of data from Australia (for both the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age) evidence from wave-built shingle terraces for a permanently full Lake Eyre[35] during the 9th and 10th centuries is consistent with this La Niña-like configuration, though of itself inadequate to show how lake levels varied from year to year or what climatic conditions elsewhere in Australia were like.

Adhikari and Kumon (2001), whilst investigating sediments in Lake Nakatsuna in central Japan, finding a warm period from AD 900 to 1200 that corresponded to the Medieval Warm Period and three cool phases, of which two could be related to the Little Ice Age.[36] Another research in northeastern Japan shows that there is one warm/humid interval from AD 750 to 1200, and two cold/dry intervals from AD 1 to 750 and 1200 to present.[37] Ge et al. studied temperatures in China during the past 2000 years; they found high uncertainty prior to the 16th century but good consistency over the last 500 years, highlighted by the two cold periods 1620s–1710s and 1800s–1860s, and the warming during the 20th century. They also found that the warming during the 10–14th centuries in some regions might be comparable in magnitude to the warming of the last few decades of the 20th century which was unprecedented within the past 500 years.[38]

"Temperatures derived from an 18O/16O profile through a stalagmite found in a New Zealand cave (40.67°S, 172.43°E) suggested the Medieval Warm Period to have occurred between AD 1050 and 1400 and to have been 0.75°C warmer than the Current Warm Period."[39] The MWP has also been evidenced in New Zealand by an 1100-year tree-ring record.[2]

See also


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  2. ^ a b Cook ER, Palmer JG, D’Arrigo RD (2002). "Evidence for a 'Medieval Warm Period' in a 1,100 year tree-ring reconstruction of past austral summer temperatures in New Zealand". Geophysical Research Letters 29 (14): 1667. Bibcode 2002GeoRL..29n..12C. doi:10.1029/2001GL014580. 
  3. ^ Leavitt SW (March 1994). "Major wet interval in white mountains medieval warm period evidenced in δ13C of bristlecone pine tree rings California". Climatic Change 26 (2–3): 299–307. doi:10.1007/BF01092420. 
  4. ^ a b Grove JM, Switsur R (March 1994). "Glacial geological evidence for the medieval warm period". Climatic Change 26 (2–3): 143–169. doi:10.1007/BF01092411.  as PDF
  5. ^ Diaz, Henry F.; Hughes, M. (1994). The Medieval warm period. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. 134. ISBN 0-7923-2842-6. "6.2 Evidence for a Medieval Warm Epoch" 
  6. ^ Keigwin, Lloyd D. (1996-11-29). "The Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period in the Sargasso Sea". Science 274 (5292): 1504–8. doi:10.1126/science.274.5292.1503. PMID 8929406. 
  7. ^ Stahle DW, Cleaveland MK (March 1994). "Tree-ring reconstructed rainfall over the southeastern U.S.A. during the medieval warm period and little ice age". Climatic Change 26 (2–3): 199–212. doi:10.1007/BF01092414. 
  8. ^ Kazuyoshi Yamada, et al. (2010). "Late Holocene monsoonal-climate change inferred from lakes Ni-no-Megata and San-noMegata, northeastern Japan". Quaternary international 220: 122–132. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2009.09.006. 
  9. ^ a b c d Mann, M. E.; Zhang, Z.; Rutherford, S.; Bradley, R. S.; Hughes, M. K.; Shindell, D.; Ammann, C.; Faluvegi, G. et al. (2009). "Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly". Science 326 (5957): 1256–60. doi:10.1126/science.1177303. PMID 19965474. 
  10. ^ Bradley, Raymond S. (2003). "Climate of the Last Millennium.". Climate System Research Center. 
  11. ^ Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy (1971). Times of Feast, Times of Famine: a History of Climate Since the Year 1000. Farrar Straus & Giroux. ISBN 0374521220. 
  12. ^ Solomon, Susan Snell; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007). "6.6 The Last 2,000 Years". Climate change 2007: the physical science basis: contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. ISBN 0-521-70596-7. 
  13. ^ Lamb, H. (1965). "The early medieval warm epoch and its sequel". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 1: 13–37. doi:10.1016/0031-0182(65)90004-0.  edit
  14. ^ IPCC First Assessment Report Working Group 1 report, Executive Summary p. 199
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  17. ^ Crowley, Thomas J.; Lowery, Thomas S. (2000). "How Warm Was the Medieval Warm Period?". AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 29 (1): 51–4. doi:10.1579/0044-7447-29.1.51. 
  18. ^ Jones, P.D.; Mann, M.E. (2004). "Climate over past millennia". Reviews of Geophysics 42 (RG2002): 1–42. Bibcode 2004RvGeo..42.2002J. doi:10.1029/2003RG000143. 
  19. ^ Mann, Michael E. (May 2010). "What we can learn from studying the last millennium (or so)". RealClimate. 
  20. ^ Mann, Michael E.; Zhang, Zhihua; Rutherford, Scott; Bradley, Raymond S.; Hughes, Malcolm K.; Shindell, Drew; Ammann, Caspar; Faluvegi, Greg et al. (2009). "Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly". Science 326 (5957): 1256–60. doi:10.1126/science.1177303. PMID 19965474. 
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Further reading

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