Research Article

Tropical Ocean Temperatures Over the Past 3.5 Million Years

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Science  18 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5985, pp. 1530-1534
DOI: 10.1126/science.1185435

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Birth of the Cool

Over the past 4 million years or so, tropical sea surface temperatures have experienced a cooling trend (see the Perspective by Philander). Herbert et al. (p. 1530) analyzed sea surface temperature records of the past 3.5 million years from low-latitude sites spanning the world's major ocean basins in order to determine the timing and magnitude of the cooling that has accompanied the intensification of Northern Hemisphere ice ages since the Pliocene. Martínez-Garcia et al. (p. 1550) found that the enigmatic eastern equatorial Pacific cold tongue, a feature one might not expect to find in such a warm region receiving so much sunlight, first appeared between 1.8 and 1.2 million years ago. Its appearance was probably in response to a general shrinking of the tropical warm water pool caused by general climate cooling driven by changes in Earth's orbit.


Determining the timing and amplitude of tropical sea surface temperature (SST) change is an important part of solving the puzzle of the Plio-Pleistocene ice ages. Alkenone-based tropical SST records from the major ocean basins show coherent glacial-interglacial temperature changes of 1° to 3°C that align with (but slightly lead) global changes in ice volume and deep ocean temperature over the past 3.5 million years. Tropical temperatures became tightly coupled with benthic δ18O and orbital forcing after 2.7 million years. We interpret the similarity of tropical SST changes, in dynamically dissimilar regions, to reflect “top-down” forcing through the atmosphere. The inception of a strong carbon dioxide–greenhouse gas feedback and amplification of orbital forcing at ~2.7 million years ago connected the fate of Northern Hemisphere ice sheets with global ocean temperatures since that time.

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