The Medieval Warm Period (MWP), also known as the Medieval Climate Optimum or the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, was a time of warm climate in the North Atlantic region that lasted from c. 950 to c. 1250. It was likely related to temperature increases elsewhere, but other regions meanwhile got colder, such as the tropical Pacific. Average global mean temperatures have been calculated to be similar to the early-mid-20th-century warming. Possible causes of the Medieval Warm Period include increased solar activity, decreased volcanic activity, and changes in ocean circulation.
The Medieval Warm Period was followed by a cooler period in the North Atlantic and elsewhere, which is termed the Little Ice Age. Some refer to the event as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly to emphasize that climatic effects other than temperature were also important.
It is thought that the period between c. 950 and c. 1100 was the Northern Hemisphere's warmest period since the Roman Warm Period. It was only in the 20th and the 21st centuries that the Northern Hemisphere has experienced higher temperatures. Climate proxy records show peak warmth occurred at different times for different regions, which indicate that the Medieval Warm Period was not a globally-uniform event.
The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) is generally thought to have occurred from c. 950–c. 1250, during the European Middle Ages. In 1965, Hubert Lamb, one of the first paleoclimatologists, published research based on data from botany, historical document research, and meteorology, combined with records indicating prevailing temperature and rainfall in England around c. 1200 and around c. 1600. He proposed, "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 c. 1000–c. 1200 AD, and was followed by a decline of temperature levels till between c. 1500 and c. 1700 the coldest phase since the last ice age occurred."
The warm period became known as the Medieval Warm Period, and the cold period was called the Little Ice Age (LIA). However, that 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." It stated that temperatures in the "late tenth to early thirteenth centuries (about AD 950-1250) appear to have been exceptionally warm in western Europe, Iceland and Greenland." The IPCC Third Assessment Report from 2001 summarized newer research: "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' are chiefly documented in describing northern hemisphere trends in hemispheric or global mean temperature changes in past centuries."
Global temperature records taken from ice cores, tree rings, and lake deposits have shown that the Earth may have been slightly cooler globally (by 0.03 °C) than in the early and the mid-20th century.
Palaeoclimatologists developing region-specific climate reconstructions of past centuries conventionally label their coldest interval as "LIA" and their warmest interval as the "MWP." Others follow the convention, and when a significant climate event is found in the "LIA" or "MWP" timeframes, they 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 that are opposite to those of the North Atlantic have been noticed.
A 2009 study by Michael E. Mann et al., examining spatial patterns of surface temperatures shown in multi-proxy reconstructions, found that evidence on the Medieval Warm Period shows "warmth that matches or exceeds that of the past decade in some regions, but which falls well below recent levels globally." Their reconstruction of the pattern is characterised by warmth over a large part of the North Atlantic Ocean, southern Greenland, the Eurasian Arctic, and parts of North America that appears to be substantially higher than that of the late 20th century (1961–1990) baseline and to be comparable or to exceed that of the past decade or two in some regions. On the other hand, certain regions, such as central Eurasia, northwestern North America, and (with less confidence) parts of the South Atlantic, exhibit anomalous coolness.
In 2013, a study by the Pages-2k consortium suggests the warming was not globally synchronous: "Our regional temperature reconstructions also show little evidence for globally synchronized multi-decadal shifts that would mark well-defined worldwide MWP and LIA intervals. Instead, the specific timing of peak warm and cold intervals varies regionally, with multi-decadal variability resulting in regionally specific temperature departures from an underlying global cooling trend." In direct contrast to those findings, a 2013 study recreated a "temperature record of western equatorial Pacific subsurface and intermediate water masses over the past 10,000 years that shows that heat content varied in step with both Northern and Southern high-latitude oceans. The findings support the view that the Holocene Thermal Maximum, the Medieval Warm Period, and the Little Ice Age were global events, and they provide a long-term perspective for evaluating the role of ocean heat content in various warming scenarios for the future."
In 2019, by using an extended proxy data set, the Pages-2k consortium confirmed that the Medieval Climate Anomaly was not a globally-synchronous event. The warmest 51-year period within the Medieval Warm Period did not occur at the same time in different regions. They argue for a regional instead of global framing of climate variability in the preindustrial Common Era to aid in understanding.
See also: Tropical cyclones and climate change
Lloyd D. Keigwin's 1996 study of radiocarbon-dated box core data from marine sediments in the Sargasso Sea found that its sea surface temperature was approximately 1 °C (1.8 °F) cooler approximately 400 years ago, during the Little Ice Age, and 1700 years ago and was approximately 1 °C warmer 1000 years ago, during the Medieval Warm Period.
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, which was followed by a subsequent lull in activity.
By retrieval and isotope analysis of marine cores and from examination of mollusc growth patterns from Iceland, Patterson et al. reconstructed a mollusk growth record at a decadal resolution from the Roman Warm Period to the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.
The 2009 Mann et al. study found warmth exceeding 1961–1990 levels in southern Greenland and parts of North America during the Medieval Climate Anomaly, which the study defines as from 950 to 1250, with warmth in some regions exceeding temperatures of the 1990–2010 period. Much of the Northern Hemisphere showed a significant cooling during the Little Ice Age, which the study defines as from 1400 to 1700, but Labrador and isolated parts of the United States appeared to be approximately as warm as during the 1961–1990 period.
The Norse colonization of the Americas has been associated with warmer periods. The common theory is that Norsemen took advantage of ice-free seas to colonize areas in Greenland and other outlying lands of the far north. However, a study from Columbia University suggests that Greenland was not colonized in warmer weather, but the warming effect in fact lasted for only very briefly. c. 1000AD, the climate was sufficiently warm for the Vikings to journey to Newfoundland and to establish a short-lived outpost there.
In around 985, Vikings founded the Eastern Settlement and Western Settlement, both near the southern tip of Greenland. In the colony's early stages, they kept cattle, sheep, and goats, with around a quarter of their diet from seafood. After the climate became colder and stormier around 1250, their diet steadily shifted towards ocean sources. By around 1300, seal hunting provided over three quarters of their food.
By 1350, there was reduced demand for their exports, and trade with Europe fell away. The last document from the settlements dates from 1412, and over the following decades, the remaining Europeans left in what seems to have been a gradual withdrawal, which was caused mainly by economic factors such as increased availability of farms in Scandinavian countries.
In Chesapeake Bay (now in Maryland and Virginia, United States), researchers found large temperature excursions (changes from the mean temperature of that time) during the Medieval Warm Period (about 950–1250) and the Little Ice Age (about 1400–1700, with cold periods persisting into the early 20th century), which are possibly related to changes in the strength of North Atlantic thermohaline circulation. Sediments in Piermont Marsh of the lower Hudson Valley show a dry Medieval Warm Period from 800 to 1300.
Prolonged droughts affected many parts of the Western United States and especially eastern California and the west of Great Basin. Alaska experienced three intervals of comparable warmth: 1–300, 850–1200, and since 1800. Knowledge of the Medieval Warm Period in North America has been useful in dating occupancy periods of certain Native American habitation sites, especially in arid parts of the Western United States. Droughts in the Medieval Warm Period may have impacted Native American settlements also in the Eastern United States, such as at Cahokia. Review of more recent archaeological research shows that as the search for signs of unusual cultural changes has broadened, some of the early patterns (such as violence and health problems) have been found to be more complicated and regionally varied than had been previously thought. Other patterns, such as settlement disruption, deterioration of long-distance trade, and population movements, have been further corroborated.
The climate in equatorial eastern Africa has alternated between being drier than today and relatively wet. The climate was drier during the Medieval Warm Period (1000–1270).
A sediment core from the eastern Bransfield Basin, in the Antarctic Peninsula, preserves climatic events from both the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period. The authors noted, "The late Holocene records clearly identify Neoglacial events of the Little Ice Age (LIA) and Medieval Warm Period (MWP)." Some Antarctic regions were atypically cold, but others were atypically warm between 1000 and 1200.
Corals in the tropical Pacific Ocean suggest that relatively cool and dry conditions may have persisted early in the millennium, which is consistent with a La Niña-like configuration of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation patterns.
In 2013, a study from three US universities was published in Science magazine and showed that the water temperature in the Pacific Ocean was 0.9 degrees warmer during the Medieval Warmth Period than during the Little Ice Age and 0.65 degrees warmer than the decades before the study.
The Medieval Warm Period has been noted in Chile in a 1500-year lake bed sediment core, as well as in the Eastern Cordillera of Ecuador.
A reconstruction, based on ice cores, found that the Medieval Warm Period could be distinguished in tropical South America from about 1050 to 1300 and was followed in the 15th century by the Little Ice Age. Peak temperatures did not rise as to the level of the late 20th century, which were unprecedented in the area during the study period of 1600 years.
Adhikari and Kumon (2001), investigating sediments in Lake Nakatsuna, in central Japan, found a warm period from 900 to 1200 that corresponded to the Medieval Warm Period and three cool phases, two of which could be related to the Little Ice Age. Other research in northeastern Japan showed that there was one warm and humid interval, from 750 to 1200, and two cold and dry intervals, from 1 to 750 and from 1200 to now. Ge et al. studied temperatures in China for the past 2000 years and 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 20th-century warming. They also found that the warming from the 10th to the 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.
There is an extreme scarcity of data from Australia for both the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. However, evidence from wave-built shingle terraces for a permanently-full Lake Eyre during the 9th and the 10th centuries is consistent with a La Niña-like configuration, but the data are insufficient to show how lake levels varied from year to year or what climatic conditions elsewhere in Australia were like.
A 1979 study from the University of Waikato found, "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 c. 1050 and c. 1400 and to have been 0.75 °C warmer than the Current Warm Period." More evidence in New Zealand is from an 1100-year tree-ring record.