Much of the information about glacial and interglacial climate change has come from cores drilled either from ocean-floor sediments or ice caps. However, both suffer from limits to time resolution of the order of more than 100 years, although ice younger than about 5 thousand years clearly shows annual layers. While groundwater is able to flow, speleothem (flowstone) grows continuously in caves, under conditions of extremely stable temperature and humidity. Depending on how they are analysed and how thick the deposits are, stalagmites and stalactites should give fine time resolution. A half-metre long stalagmite from an Irish cave has grown since the start of the Holocene. Using high-precision uranium-series dating, its length has been calibrated in calendar years before present. A laser probe that releases oxygen from the speleothem calcite has provided oxygen isotope data whose resolution (between 7 and 18 years) is an order of magnitude better than sea-floor sediments and between 5 to 20 times better than from pre-5 ka ice cores (McDermott, F., Mattey, D.P. and Hawkesworth, C. 2001. Centennial-scale Holocene climate variabilty revealed by a high-resolution speleothem d18O record from SW Ireland. Science, v. 294, p. 1328-1331).
Until recently, the best documented climate variations that are more rapid than can be explained by the Milankovich effect are the Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles in the Greenland ice cap. They are of the order of 1 ka, but somewhat variable in their periodicity. The Irish stalagmite shows that there were climate shifts throughout the once supposedly stable Holocene, with frequencies equivalent to periods of 625, 169 and 78 years, the latest of which coincide with warm and cool periods since Roman times. One caution is that the oxygen isotope variations cannot be ascribed directly to variations in air temperature, because they would have been affected by differences in the surface seawater from which water vapour evaporated to fall as rain in SW Ireland. Before about 4.5 ka 8 clear peaks and troughs occur at the same times in both the Irish stalagmite and the Greenland ice core; clear signs of regional changes. These probably reflect releases of glacial meltwater to freshen surface waters of the North Atlantic. Over Greenland they resulted in atmospheric cooling, in response to weakening of the effects of the Gulf Stream by reduced thermohaline circulation. The correlation breaks down for the last 4 ka, and the fluctuations in the Irish data do not show features that coincide with ice-rafting events known from sea-floor sediment cores. That suggests that ice-rafting was no longer able to cap the North Atlantic with fresher water. Nonetheless, something was going on to impart isotopic changes to rain falling on Ireland, and that did coincide with the widespread climate changes of the recent past. What the driving processes were is not known, but it seems inescapable that underlying the drive to global warming through industrial CO2 emissions is a more fundamental process. Should anthropogenic warming reinforce it, as seems to be happening, their combined effects could flush fresh water into the North Atlantic’s surface layers, thereby slowing thermohaline circulation and the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.