Temperature reconstructions from the North Atlantic region indicate frequent abrupt and severe climate fluctuations during the last glacial and Holocene periods. The driving forces for these events are unclear and coupled atmosphere–ocean models of global circulation have only simulated such events by inserting large amounts of fresh water into the northern North Atlantic Ocean. Here we report a drastic cooling event in a 15,000-yr simulation of global circulation with present-day climate conditions without the use of such external forcing. In our simulation, the annual average surface temperature near southern Greenland spontaneously fell 6–10 standard deviations below its mean value for a period of 30–40 yr. The event was triggered by a persistent northwesterly wind that transported large amounts of buoyant cold and fresh water into the northern North Atlantic Ocean. Oceanic convection shut down in response to this flow, concentrating the entire cooling of the northern North Atlantic by the colder atmosphere in the uppermost ocean layer. Given the similarity between our simulation and observed records of rapid cooling events, our results indicate that internal atmospheric variability alone could have generated the extreme climate disruptions in this region.