Knowledge of regional variations in response to abrupt climatic transitions is essential to understanding the climate system and anticipating future changes. Global climate models typically assume that major climatic changes occur synchronously over continental to hemispheric distances. The last major reorganization of the ocean-atmosphere system in the North Atlantic realm took place during the Younger Dryas (YD), an ∼1100 yr cold period at the end of the last glaciation. Within this region, several terrestrial records of the YD show at least two phases, an initial cold phase followed by a second phase of climatic amelioration related to a resumption of North Atlantic overturning. We show that the onset of climatic amelioration during the YD cold period was locally abrupt, but time-transgressive across Europe. Atmospheric proxy signals record the resumption of thermohaline circulation midway through the Younger Dryas, occurring 100 yr before deposition of ash from the Icelandic Vedde eruption in a German varve lake record, and 20 yr after the same isochron in western Norway, 1350 km farther north. Synchronization of two high-resolution continental records, using the Vedde Ash layer (12,140 ± 40 varve yr B.P.), allows us to trace the shifting of the polar front as a major control of regional climate amelioration during the YD in the North Atlantic realm. It is critical that future climate models are able to resolve such small spatial and chronological differences in order to properly encapsulate complex regional responses to global climate change.